Volume 7, Issue 2, Spring 2011

The Spring 2011 issue begins with an editorial from KB Journal editor Andy King, "Burke on the Persistence of Myth and Ritual." Features in this issue include Barton R. Horvath, “The Burke I Knew”; Gretchen K. G. Underwood, “From Form to Function: In Defense of an Internal Use of the Pentad”; William Cahill, “Always Keep Watching For Terms: Posthumous Interview With Kenneth Burke (Report of Six Visits with KB 1989-1990 in Andover New Jersey)”; William Cahill, “Cahill’s Photo Gallery: Pictures from the Interview”; Andrew Kidd, “Kenneth Burke and the Contemporary Philosophy of Science”; Rosemary Royston, “Positive Indemnification Through Being the ‘Occasional Asshole’: A Burkean analysis of Dear John by Poet Tony Hoagland.” This issue also includes articles by Ted Remington, “Ceci N’est Pas Une Guerre: The Misuse of War as Metaphor in Iraq”; Abram Anders, “Pragmatisms by Incongruity: ‘Equipment for Living from Kenneth Burke to Gilles Deleuze”; Brian O’Sullivan, “Crimes of Juxtaposition: Incongruous Frames in Sullivan’s Travels”; Stephanie Grey, “A Perfect Loathing: The Feminist Expulsion of the Eating Disorder”; William Cahill, “Kenneth Burke’s Pedagogy of Motives”; Drew M. Loewe, “‘Where Human Relations Grandly Converge’: The Constitutional Dialectic of Hizb ut-Tahrir”; Jeffrey Carroll, “The Song Above Catastrophe: Kenneth Burke on Music.” Additionally, there is a review of Mark A. Huglen and Basil B. Clark’s Poetic Healing: A Vietnam Veteran’s Journey from a Communication Perspective and a Scholar’s Note from Mary Hedengren.

Editorial: Burke on the Persistence of Myth and Ritual

The View from Andy King’s Camera Obscura

“MALCOLM COWLEY AND I CAME LATE to reading Alan Fraser’s famous work, The Golden Bough; Malcolm wondered why a man like Alan Frazer who dismissed all myth and ritual as superstition and primitive survival would have  spent so many years recording all those sacrificial and ceremonial practices if he thought they were so stupid," said Kenneth Burke to Bill Bailey and I as we picked over the remains of a meal in Tucson in 1971.  I don’t remember much of the rest of our late night conversation because at that point we had just broken into Bailey’s second bottle of claret.  Although we weren’t exactly legless, the rest of Burke’s wonderful language has long faded in my memory but I can still pretty well recall the general outlines of the conversation.

Burke said that while Cowley and some of his other friends had experienced The Golden Bough as an emancipatory and liberating experience, he felt that Frazer’s core idea was utterly and crudely false.  Fraser, a proudly lapsed Scottish Calvinist and rationalist, argued that myth and ritual were remnants of our primitive and superstition-laden past.    Burke on the other hand felt that the hardy survival of so many myths—creation, redemption, guilt and sacrifice, and charismatic transformations of spirit—proved the opposite.    Burke believed that myths were not illusions and mistakes, but rich systems of understanding human experience and powerful generators of social behavior.   His famous Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle with Hitler as tribal medicine man and cunning magician came out of his understanding that myth and ritual are brutally alive in the present.  Perhaps as a result of his translation of Thomas Mann’s works, Burke further rejected Max Weber’s then received wisdom of the disenchantment of the world and the triumph of Enlightenment mechanistic thought.  So much of Mann’s work was founded on the myth of the questing hero and his work was informed by pagan ideas of the spirits of locale and middle air.

One could speculate that Burke’s reconnection with myth and ritual eventually led him out of communitarian politics and toward the ecology movement.  Burke himself had been in the grip of the agrarian myth as had Alan Tate and the Agrarians of the 1920s who sought an intermediate place between civilization and wilderness—Robert Penn Warren’s “cultivated state of grace.” As there is a piece by a Thoreau scholar in this issue I am reminded of Burke’s mixed feelings about Henry David Thoreau.   Burke had sought Virgil’s “unbeastly pastoral” in Northern New Jersey in the 1920s and his difficult experience there allowed him to expose Henry David Thoreau as a “fraud who mistook suburbia for wilderness.” Burke described   Walden Woods in Concord in the following manner:   “I think it is not a hell of a lot more than a big grove of oak trees added to a couple of orphan wood lots.  And I am told that what Thoreau lived on was supposed to be the twelve acres owned by Emerson.”  But in the long run Burke forgave Thoreau’s wilderness fantasy reminding us that it was Thoreau who had written that the wilderness was really an imagined realm inside ourselves.  I hunted down Burke’s long ago reference and found it in Thoreau’s book American Landscape (New York, 1991).  “It is vain to dream of a wilderness distinct from ourselves.  It is the bog in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of nature in us that inspires the dream” (pp. 126-27).

Burke’s genius was that he was able to take myth seriously without being utterly dazzled by its poetic power. He could appreciate myth without debunking it and yet without surrendering to it blindly.  This wonderful sense of balance is illustrated throughout his Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle, surely one of the grandest pieces of rhetorical criticism ever written and a style model for the ages.

Despite Burke’s harsh indictment of Southern agrarian literature as “a kind of gritty Sociology”,   he always admired their keen portrayals of the survival of myth in the modern world. It has become a literary commonplace to note that Faulkner’s Flood story recalibrated the river legends of Isis and Osiris, and Tate’s Ode to the Confederate Dead reanimated sacrifice and resurrection.  For him the work of Tate and Warren and Faulkner and Welty illustrated the generative power of myth in shaping our social relations and providing what the artist Bailey called “the narrative night music that helps us make sense of this buzzing burbling  daylight  world.

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"Editorial: Burke on the Persistence of Myth and Ritual; by Andy King is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

The Burke I Knew

Barton R. Horvath

I TAUGHT WRITING FOR MORE than forty years on the agricultural campus of a large Mid-Western university.  Year after year I assigned students to write essays using extended comparison and then was bludgeoned by five dozen dreary essays comparing oats and barley, hard red winter wheat and Kansas Spring wheat, and the manners and morals of two rival National Football League quarterbacks. These essays were stapled and stuffed into cardboard folders of Lincoln green, the traditional color of Christian Hope.  But my early hope died as   over the decades the essays bludgeoned me with their slipshod sentences, their mindless conclusions, their sentimental blather, and their teeming grammatical barbarisms.  The red knuckled children of the farm and the workshop were more like the thick tongued warrior, Ulfila than the lyrical Thomas Cranmer, more thundering Odin than John Milton, more Tarl the Viking berserker than melodious Dante.  Devoutly did I seek, fervently did I pray, earnestly did I call out for a diamond in the rough. No diamond in the rough ever showed up; thus, my intellectually empty and spiritually joyless years in the composition classroom.

I seldom went to conferences and my single and well focused research interest was in the work of Henry David Thoreau, the man Emerson said “could have been a great admiral, a great statesman, a major poet, but ended up having done nothing more significant than organizing a huckleberry party.” I felt a strong kinship with Thoreau.   Passed over by our contemporaries, I believed that he and I drew our thought from a deeper source.  We were lonely keepers of the literary flame.

One year I went to a dreary conference on Emerson at Purdue. Except for two or three papers that touched on Emerson’s relationship with Thoreau I found the papers incredibly boring.   One paper explored Emerson’s relationship with the new invention of the telegraph.    Another plumbed the depths of his contempt for the American university. Even more sleep-producing presentations concerned his reflections on walking, national character and farming.  But during the conference I heard that the great Kenneth Burke was giving a lecture on campus.  My friend, Roger Clement Knox, urged me to go telling me that Burke was “an original thinker, not the usual academic piss ant.”

I forget the title of the lecture except that it was about the moral geography of America.   I had a good deal of difficulty following the lecture which seemed to lurch off in several different directions at once.  However, during the lecture Burke uttered a sentence I will never forget.   He said (in effect for I wrote down what may be a garbled version of his exact words) “For Henry David Thoreau and the early Transcendentalists there could be no middle ground between nature and the wilderness.  They did not permit equivocation.  For people like Thoreau, nature must be the virgin and culture the whore.”   Burke went on to say that there was nothing uniquely American about these observations. They were inherited  themes, the  exhausted sentiments of the Old World, the warmed over Classicism of Goethe and Schiller and Fichte,  and the hard cheese stale folk tales that Washington Irving stole from the European arcana.

I was so infuriated by these perspectives that I considered shouting Burke down.  After the lecture I cornered him and attempted to refute him.The little man was actually delighted by my fury. My objections were like rich wine to him.  “I understand you.  I fully understand you,” he kept saying happily.   His replies were astoundingly civil and good humored.  After two hours of argument I was exhausted but Burke was still going like the Energizer Bunny.   His stock of information about Thoreau was immense.  Several people joined us and no matter what observation was made, Burke seemed to have what I can only call “instant context”. 

We continued our argument through correspondence.  But Burke as a letter writer seemed far less fluent than Burke as a debater.  Although he never convinced me that Thoreau was the last flatulent echo of the Greco-Roman agrarian tradition, I shall never forget the electricity of that encounter at Purdue.

That was a long time ago.  Burke is long gone.  Cox is gone.  My Lincoln green composition folders went into the paper shredders a couple of decades ago.  But Burke’s stream of argument, example and narrative and the little horns of hair standing up above his ears are still vividly alive in the black projection room of my mind.

He was always a man apart from anyone else, a man you remembered forever.   In his thought he had spanned cultures, nations, and centuries.   He interrogated Aquinas in his midnight study, traveled with Cervantes to Lepanto, and sparred with Carlyle in the Bobby Burns Tavern in Edinburgh.  For more than seven decades he lived the life of the literary intellectual largely outside the university.  We will not see his like again.  The breed is extinct.

*Dr. Barton R. Horvath is a pseudonym for a professor of Rhetoric who spent more than forty years teaching composition at a large upper Midwestern university (also not named by him).  He also taught a well known undergraduate course on Transcendentalist Literature featuring the work of Channing, Emerson, and Thoreau.
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"The Burke I Knew; by Kenneth Burke Journal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.


From Form to Function: In Defense of an Internal Use of the Pentad

Gretchen K. G. Underwood, Penn State Greater Allegheny


One of the early lessons that all Burkean scholars must learn is that “everything is more complicated than it seems” (Rueckert, 1982, p. 267). As a society we seek out user-friendly interfaces that enable us to interact with a variety of tools and ideas, but often forget to look beneath the surface. This essay asks readers to look beneath the surface, to explore the depths of the pentad so that the complications of what Burke created are not lost by our focus on act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose (i.e. the interface). This essay identifies how the pentad first began to take shape through Burke’s definition of form as “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite” (1968, p. 31), and traces Burke’s discussions of both form and the pentad to help readers to unravel the complications beneath the surface of the pentad.

IN A LETTER TO MALCOLM COWLEY in 1940, Burke wrote,
I am going to try once more to carry out my resolve to do no further development of my ideas for the Human Relations book, and simply edit the notes already taken. I see a way of making a very neat monograph of my five terms, ‘act, scene, agent, agency, purpose’ and how they behave implicitly and explicitly in all the ways in which people attribute motives to one another’s acts. I think this might prove to be as fertile an essay for me personally as my ‘Psychology and Form’ one was. (Burke & Cowley, 1989, p. 233)

Whether or not Burke’s prophecy became reality, it is clear that Burke’s work on the five terms was taking form even before its first mention appeared in print in his book Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), and long before it debuted as “the pentad” in A Grammar of Motives (1969a). This focus appears to have continued throughout the remainder of his career; as Rueckert (1982) contends, “if there is a single overriding lesson to learn from Burke, it is that everything implies everything else, and everything is more complicated than it seems” (p. 267).

In reviewing the writings of secondary sources, and exploring the ways in which the pentad has been put to use by others, it becomes apparent that the pentad is much more complicated than it seems.1 The following essay will demonstrate how Burke’s definition of form (1968, p. 31) anticipates his introduction of the pentad, and more specifically his internal use of the pentad, as developed in A Grammar of Motives. Accomplishing this task will require an exploration of Burke’s definition of form, his references to the five elements of the pentad throughout the “Boikwoiks,” and his continued development and explications of the pentad through his works on dramatism, logology, and rhetoric.

Rueckert suggests that the overarching themes and approaches developed by Burke began to take shape as early as the 1930s, though “most of what is essentially Burkean is present somewhere in A Grammar of Motives, A Rhetoric of Motives, and the uncollected parts of ‘A Symbolic of Motives,’ the three works that formulate and develop dramatism as a system” (Rueckert, p. 243).  These ideas were continually revisited and redefined throughout the Burkean opus (“Boikwoiks”).

In an essay on the pentad, Burke sets out “an account of how one thing led to another. It starts with the theory of form as the arousing and fulfilling of expectation” (1978b, p. 331). Burke argues that his “job” was to develop a method that could be used to help critics frame questions that would help them uncover the motives and assumptions implicit within a text (Burke, 1978b, 332).

In Counter-Statement, Burke defines form as “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite” (p. 31). Within Burke’s essay, “LEXICON RHETORICÆ,” (1968, p. 123-183), readers find the further development of Burke’s theory of form; “a work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (1968, p. 124). The appetite essential to form is often created by a series of temporary frustrations – moments when we are unable to clearly identify with one another  – which are adequately resolved when we finally see ourselves as consubstantial with another either because our interests are joined with theirs or we are persuaded to believe that they are joined (Burke, 1969b, 20-21); 

the poignancy of the rhetorical situation attains its fullness in spontaneously arising identification whereby, even without deliberative intent upon the part of anyone, we fail to draw the lines at the right places. In effect the situation is thus as though there were two salads, side by side. They look alike, and we might call them both by the same name, though unbeknownst to us one happens to be wholesome, the other contaminated. The rhetorical situation, as I see it, comes to a head in faulty identifications of this sort (Burke, 1973b, p. 271).

Our failure to properly draw the lines is the result of the inherent ambiguity of language. By invoking what Burke refers to as “ritual drama” (1973a, p. 103), and others have referred to as archetypal metaphor (Fisher, 1984), a rhetor asks her audience to become consubstantial in order to collectively participate in an experience. Fisher believes that even if we were able to access the truth, archetypal metaphors are the only resources that we have that allow us to share our knowledge with others. Archetypal metaphors provide us with a way of communicating with others, and understanding one another’s thoughts and actions.

Burke suggests metaphors allow us to make the connections that our rational language cannot allow us to make; connections that we see only in our dreams (1984, p. 90). Metaphors help us to see “the thisness of that, and the thatness of this” (Burke, 1969a, p. 503), in the way that our subconscious minds see them but our rational minds have tried to filter out. Burke suggests, in A Grammar of Motives, that we substitute the term “perspective” for metaphor, because, he argues, metaphor is simply a way of making connections between two previously unrelated things.  Metaphor helps us to create a common language for and way of thinking about an object, emotion, or situation;  it helps others to understand how one person perceived the world around her at a particular time by making implicit connections to experiences that each has had in common.

Burke tells us that communication requires a certain degree of ambiguity because no two events, ideas, things, or acts are identical (1969a, p. xix).  “To tell what a thing is, you place it in terms of something else…we should consider each thing in terms of its total context, the universal scene as a whole…to define a thing in terms of its context, we must define it in terms of what it is not” (Burke, 1969a, p. 24-25).  Because of this paradox of substance, we look to the interrelationship among the five terms of the pentad in order to explore the arguments implicit to the transformation of one thing to another (Burke, 1969a, p. xix).

Among the basic propositions Burke makes regarding Dramatism, he argues there is, conceivably, a formal structure (principle) intrinsic to all communication, and this structure accounts for the collapsing of the division between the realms of the symbolic and the non-symbolic into the logological reduction that enables us to understand that a symbol is a symbol even before we consciously recognize its potential meaning.  “In keeping with his specific nature as the symbol-using animal, he necessarily sees the non-symbolic realm (of motion) in terms of the symbolic mediums through which he contemplates the nonsymbolic realm and thereby in effect translates it” (Burke, 1973b, p. 263).  Further, Burke proposes we “take ritual drama as the Ur-form, the ‘hub,’ with all other aspects of human action treated as spokes radiating from the hub” (1973a, p. 103).  This hub becomes the point of translation that makes individual human action and motivation consubstantial with the actions and motivations of others.  “The social sphere is considered in terms of situations and acts… [and] ritual drama is considered as the culminating form” (1973a, p. 103).  When a writer describes an event in her life as a “quest for the truth”, her reader is able to anticipate a story in which the writer will describe the obstacles she had to overcome in order to reach her reward.  Insomuch as the story conforms to the reader’s expectations, the drama is form.  Through the cathartic act of writing her book, the writer seeks to justify (for both herself and others) her actions in terms of a specific situation, the quest for knowledge.  The ritual drama that she creates by the invocation of the quest narrative ultimately serves to make writer and reader(s) consubstantial.

Accepting ritual drama as the hub of human action, Burke turns to work out his first statement of what will become, in A Grammar of Motives, the pentad.  Burke insists, if we extend our scope on the ritual drama beyond the connection between the situation-act pair to include act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose, we may move a step closer to uncovering human motivation (1973a, 106).

These five terms, with a treatment of the purely internal or syntactic relationships prevailing among them, are I think particularly handy for extending the discussion of motivation so as to locate the strategies in metaphysical and theological systems…Hence, one will watch, above all, every reference that bears upon expectancy and foreshadowing, in particular every overt reference to any kind of ‘calling’ or ‘compulsion’ (i.e. active or passive concept of motive). And one will note particularly the situational or scenic material (the ‘properties’) in which such references are contexts; for in this way he will find the astrological relationships prevailing between plot and the background, hence being able to treat scenic material as representative of psychic material” (Burke, 1973a, p. 106: footnote).

In other words, Burke argues the scene or context in which an act takes place may provide us with clues regarding the motivations of the author or those motivations that the author wishes to identify with a particular character with in the ritual drama.

Burke’s connection of drama and dialectic further suss out for us the connection between form and the pentad.  Burke states, “Plato’s dialectic was appropriately written in the mode of ritual drama” because at the heart of dialectic is a concern for “the ‘cooperative competition’ of the ‘parliamentary’” (1973a, p. 107).  According to Burke, the greatest mistake that a political leader can make is to silence the opposition and thereby remove cooperative competition.  In so doing the leader locks himself into a description of reality which, when it fails to accurately reflect reality, is more easily refuted by the opposition.  “Men seek for vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality.  To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality.  And any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality” (Burke, 1969a, p. 59).

Through this argument Burke suggests that it is our collective and competitive collaboration that enables form to be developed.  Our desire to create a faithful reflection of reality drives us to select metaphors and ritual dramas, from our bank of options that we share in common with other members of our society or culture, that will create and satisfy our appetites. Through this reflective selection we are able to whet the appetite by the selection of a metaphoric scene, act, agent, agency, or purpose; through identification and with the collaboration of the audience via the dialectic we are able to satisfy that appetite in a way that is not possible without the dialectic.  Collaboration also allows us to maintain a degree of ambiguity sufficient for the development of form.  “The hypertrophy of the psychology of information is accompanied by the corresponding atrophy of the psychology of form” (Burke, 1968, p. 33).  Increased information leads to a lack of form because there is no longer a need to crave when you know that you will be fed, and “the drama, more than any other form, must never lose sight of its audience: here the failure to satisfy the proper requirements [including a need for ambiguity] is most disastrous” (Burke, 1968, p. 37).

Form requires the use of style in a way that implicitly encourages ambiguity.  The pentadic ratios act as a type of synecdoche: “by the logic of the scene-agent ratio, if the scene is supernatural in quality, the agent contained by this scene will partake of the same supernatural quality” (Burke, 1969a, p. 8).  Burke explains how the circumference of the scene can expand or contract in order to meet the needs of an argument.  “The main point is that any change in circumference in terms of which an act is viewed implies a corresponding change in the quality of the act’s motivation.  Such a loose yet compelling correspondence between act and scene is called a ‘scene-act ratio’” (Burke, 1967, p. 332-333).  By substituting a part (such as the assumption of a supernatural scene) for the whole we allow a necessary degree of ambiguity to flourish.  “There is implicit in the quality of a scene the quality of the action that is to take place within it.  This would be another way of saying that the act will be consistent with the scene” (Burke, 1969a, p. 6) just as “the contents of a divine container will synecdochically share in its divinity” (Burke, 1969a, p. 8).  By describing the scene as supernatural, we transform the remaining elements described by the pentad in ways that transcend their individual uniqueness (Burke, 1970, p. 9).  A “summarizing word is functionally a ‘god-term.’ …Is there not a sense in which the summarizing term, the over-all name or title, could be said to ‘transcend’ the many details subsumed under that head, somewhat as ‘spirit’ is said to ‘transcend matter’” (Burke, 1970, p. 3) and therefore introduces the ambiguity necessary to sustain form.

Likewise, “if we arouse in someone an attitude of sympathy towards something, we may be starting him on the road towards overtly sympathetic action with regard to it” (Burke, 1969a, p. 236) because we have substituted a partial response which may then consume our other responses.  Burke describes a hero as a man whose actions are heroic, “his ‘heroism’ resides in his act” (1969a, p. 42).  The implicit connection is made explicit in the ratio: actor is to act as implicit is to explicit (Burke, 1969a, p. 7).  At the same time, we may associate the term hero with a particular profession or type of actor.  Here we synecdochically imbue the actor with status because of his potential agency, “heroism resides in their status” (Burke, 1969a, p. 42).  In this way, we can only discuss and make claims about the status of an actor or the scene in which his acts took place by considering the various pentadic aspects involved (Burke, 1968, p. 141). “In this sense we would restore the Platonic relationship between form and matter. A form is a way of experiencing. ... The universal experience are implicated in specific modes of experience: they arise out of a relationship between the organism and its environment” (Burke, 1968, p. 143, 150).

Burke suggests by making explicit the implications of the interrelationships among the various elements (i.e., act, scene, agent, agency, purpose) that define a situation, we may better understand human motivations.  Therefore, the elements of the pentad “need never to be abandoned, since all statements that assign motives can be shown to arise out of them and to terminate in them” (Burke, 1969a, p. xv-xvi).  Invocation of any individual element in order to describe an aspect of the human condition provides us with a means of achieving consubstantiality with another by way of a common, albeit ambiguous, understanding of the world.  “The universal experience are implicated in specific modes of experience: they arise out of a relationship between the organism and its environment” (Burke, 1968, p.150).  The invocation of a scene that contains a hero creates an appetite for a story in which the actor behaves (acts) heroically. We experience consubstantiality with the author of our story only in so far as she adequately satisfies our appetite by maintaining the relationship between the actor and the act that we crave.  If “a form is a way of experiencing” (Burke, 1968, p. 143), then form stems from our common understanding of the relationships between organism and environment.

In later discussions of the pentad and human motivation, Burke claims, consubstantiality is an essential part of human interaction.  “Substance, in the old philosophies, was an act; and a way of life is an acting-together; and in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial” (Burke, 1969b, p. 21).  Burke’s definition of form implicitly anticipates this need for consubstantiality and the ratios of the pentad provide an explanation of the mechanism through which we become consubstantial: we are able to identify with others because we share a bank of common resources that suggest certain scenes require certain types of actors and actions, and vice-versa.  The equations that Burke establishes in the ratios are possible because identification of “one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (1968, p. 124).

Dramatism is not drama; it is the systematic use of a model designed to help us define and place the nature of human relationships and the relations among our terms of the discussions of such matters. To move from the observation that ‘a character in a play acts in character’ to a corresponding concern with an ‘agent-act ratio’ is by no means to be speaking metaphorically. There literally is some kind of consistency between a man’s character and his actions. Similarly, there literally is a ‘scene-act ratio,’ involving respects in which men’s acts are influenced, or are interpreted as being influenced, by their situations (Burke, 1978a, p. 29-30).
This literal connection between the elements of the pentad, as described in the ratios, is the missing link that explains how we convert the non-symbolic into the realm of the symbolic in order to identify with others.  Form becomes the appeal (Burke, 1968, p. 138) that allows us to bring substance to existence through the pentadic ratios. In his essay on “The Nature of Form”, Burke sets out the five aspects of form: progressive (further divided into qualitative and syllogistic progressions), repetitive, conventional, and minor or incidental.  In particular, the connection between syllogistic progression which follows from the argument that “given certain things, certain things must follow, the premises forcing the conclusion” (Burke, 1968, p. 124), and qualitative progression which Burke suggests means that certain qualities are precursors that prepare us to accept other claims of quality made in an argument, we can see how Burke’s definition of form anticipates the pentad.  These two key assumptions about form are the underlying features that allow humans to view imbue an actor within a scene with transcendent qualities stemming from the scene.  This behavior is then reinforced through repetitive form as time and again we see the same situations with a new costume (Burke, 1968, p. 125).  Each time we are able to recognize (consciously or subconsciously) a pentadic ratio in a new guise, we have the opportunity to challenge the association or to identify with the messenger.  Identification maintains the form, while our objections work to reduce ambiguity “plus the vexing fact that each ‘solution’ raises further problems. (Confidentially, that’s ‘the dialectic.’)” (Burke, 1970, p. 275).
* Gretchen K. G. Underwood is an Adjunct Instructor of Communications at Penn State Greater Allegheny.  She can be contacted via email at gku1@psu.edu or by phone at 412-805-7546.


1. As an example, see Blakesley, D. (2001). The elements of Dramatism. Boston: Longman. Blakesley provides readers with several examples of the external use of the pentad. An external use is characterized as an application in which a critic reviews a text by asking “the five W questions” (who, what, where, when, and why) in order to determine what is taking place. This use is juxtaposed with an internal, or implicit use of the pentad, characterized by the application and consideration of the pentadic ratios (GM, 3) as a means of reduction to the text’s “underlying atomic constituent” (GM, xxii).  Although D. Burks suggested, in personal correspondence, that Burke was always flattered by any application of his work, the latter (internal use) will be considered in this essay to be his preferred use.  Burke argues his intent was for the critic to focus on the ratios among the terms rather than the terms in and of themselves (Q&A, 332) because, “whether explicitly or implicitly, the nomenclature of every text embodies ‘equations’…implicit in the idea of an act there is the idea of an agent; and for an agent to act there must be a scene” (Q&A, 334-335).

Works Cited

Burke, K. (1966). Language as symbolic action: Essays on life, literature, and method. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1967). Dramatism. In L. Thayer (ed), Communication: Concepts and perspectives. Washington, D.C.: Spartin Books.

Burke, K. (1968). Counter-statement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1969a). A grammar of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1969b). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1970). The rhetoric of religion: Studies in logology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1973a). Philosophy of literary form: Studies in symbolic action. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1973b). The rhetorical situation.  In L. Thayer (ed), Communication: Ethical and moral issues. New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.

Burke, K. (1978a). Rhetoric, poetics, and philosophy. In D. Burks (ed), Rhetoric, philosophy, and literature: An exploration. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Burke, K. (1978b). Questions and answers about the pentad. College Composition and Communication: 330-335.

Burke, K. (1984). Permanence and change, an anatomy of purpose. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. & Cowley, M. (1989). The selected correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fisher, W.R. (1984). Narration as human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument. Communication Monographs, 51, 1-22.

Rueckert, W.H. (1982). Kenneth Burke and the drama of human relations. Berkley: University of California Press.
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"From Form to Function: In Defense of an Internal Use of the Pentad; by Gretchen K. G. Underwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org

“Always Keep Watching for Terms”: Visits with Kenneth Burke, 1989-1990

William Cahill, Independent Scholar


The interview provides a look at Burke in his twilight years as well as something of the sound of his eloquent but halting talk in that period.  Burke's ideas in the transcriptions offer insights about his method and philosophy that could prove helpful to scholars but would also make a useful introduction to Burke as a philosopher of language.  They also tell the story of humorous profound American thinker still vigorous in a green old age.

DRIVING UP AMITY ROAD, a narrow, quiet lane running through a little New Jersey Highland valley, we had glimpsed darkly shaded clay tennis courts and a sinuous, brimming pond on the lower side of the lane and then the frame house, sided with cedar shakes behind which dark screen forsythia came into view.  The house was on the upper side of the road, quite close to the pavement.  A large maple hid one side of the house, whose curtainless windows framed stacked books almost from their sills to their upper sashes.  A small porch-roof projected above the front door, which met the road with a few narrow mossy stone steps. A large galvanized mailbox at the foot of stone steps by the front door said “Burke” and a note on the door told visitors to come around back. 

The house was set on a narrow ledge under the shoulders of a dark hill forested with oaks, maples and hemlocks.  A stream swelled in summer to a pond in the low ground traced the bottom of the little valley below it.  Stone paths led to the back of the house, opening to a grassy, sunlit crescent of grass keeping back to tall trees of the hillside.  The lawn was edged with lilacs, forsythias, peonies, hostas, bluebells, daffodils, poppies and crocuses, as well as milkweeds and wild grasses.  This was the Andover, New Jersey home of philosopher, poet and critic Kenneth Burke.  Standing in his kitchen, Kenneth Burke greeted us with a wave through the window, inviting us in.

Robert Brewer and I were two among an intermittent stream of visitors who came to Kenneth Burke’s home in Andover, NJ in his later years to talk with him about his writing and his philosophy.  Burke loved to talk and was a generous host.  I was a schoolteacher and graduate student who had recently read Burke in university courses.  One of my professors, Janet Emig, who had assigned two of Burke’s books in a course I was taking, mentioned one evening in class that Burke lived in New Jersey and that Andover wasn’t far from our university.  Emig suggested, “Some graduate student from here [Rutgers] should go up there to Andover and talk with Burke.”  This precipitated our contact with him, which is described in the following pages with transcriptions from Burke’s conversation on several visits in 1989 and 1990, when Burke was in his early nineties.

Kenneth Burke (1897-1993), author of A Grammar of Motives (1945), A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), Language as Symbolic Action (1968), and other works on the philosophy of language, was a poet, novelist, literary critic, music critic, editor, composer, and teacher, and rhetorician.  Burke was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.  He attended Peabody High School there and moved to Weehawkin, New Jersey with his parents after graduation.  Burke attended Ohio State and Columbia Universities without taking degrees.  In the late nineteen-teens he lived in Greenwich Village in New York studying classical texts, medieval philosophy and poetry, modern literature, and languages on his own and writing poems and stories.  His first publication was a poem, “Adam’s Song, and Mine,” in Others, in 1916.  From 1920 to 1929 he worked as an editor and music critic at The Dial magazine with Marianne Moore and others.  He assisted with that magazine’s first publication of “The Waste Land” and contributed translations of French and German works, including Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (in March 1924).  During these years of literary and critical apprenticeship Burke participated in New York’s literary culture in a complex way; as a junior editor and critic at The Dial which published many major figures in modern writing, and as contributor and editor with friends of his generation for avant-garde little magazines such as Secession and Broom.

Burke's first book, The White Oxen (1924), was a collection of stories. His novel Towards a Better Life, written as a series of “declamations” by an anxious self-loathing protagonist in love with a woman he is not sure he deserves, was published in 1932.  Three books published in the 1930s, Counter-Statement (1931), Permanence and Change (1935) and Attitudes toward History (1937), developed ideas of criticism and literary form.  In the latter two he began to write about social experience as having the form of the drama and social action.  This was the beginning of his philosophy of “Dramatism,” which characterized human action as symbolic in the same sense that literature was, operating on principles that could be understood through the study of poetics.  Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) included essays exploring poetics through ideas from psychoanalysis and the psychology of addiction.  A Grammar of Motives (1945) studied philosophies as actions, working out a scheme (the “Dramatistic pentad”) for analysis of theoretical texts as agendas for living that emphasized alternately action, the agent, scene, purpose, and agency or means of action, or various “ratios” of these elements.  Burke’s decision in the early 1940s to make a symbolic analysis of philosophies expanded his thinking as he theorized about all writing and expression as symbolic action.  A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) showed how identifications operated in social life through compelling associations of terms that built our social order.  Burke’s conception of identification showed it to be an ineluctable linguistic process that could be understood and managed in action through careful criticism.  This led Burke to the idea that human characters were held together as expressions of motives by the same principles that held poetic texts together, which would be the subjects of his “symbolic of motives,” a study in poetic principles, and an “ethics of motives,” a projected study in the formation of the poetics of character.  The latter two works were never completed.  But as he worked on these projects Burke also developed his theory of symbolic action as distinct from the realm of motion, the sheerly physical aspect of the world, which action shaped and influenced.  His idea of “the thinking of the body” addressed the question of how people might understand this influence.  These latter ideas are clear in many of the transcribed remarks from Burke’s conversation printed below.

Burke's studies of The Book of Genesis and St. Augustine’s Confessions became The Rhetoric of Religion (1961), in which he analyzed as a compulsion of language to generate the divine as a fundamental human orientation, his theory of “logology.”  Burke’s writing after this turned to a critique of technology, which he saw as an expression of language that created monstrous social projects whose criticism should be sensed in ecological awareness.  Burke’s ideas about language and criticism anticipated postmodern theoretical ideas and his understanding of rhetoric, identification and argument have influenced speech and composition theory as well as criticism.

Language involves us in hierarchy and guilt, Burke claimed in many of the pieces he wrote for his unfinished Symbolic of Motives. It structures in our expression involving us always in the commitments of meanings our words brought to us—though we might think things transpired the other way around. Things are the signs of words, as he eventually put it (in an essay called “A Theory of Entitlement”); our world is so mediated by language, and language by our past uses of it, that everything in the world of human action speaks to us persuasively, compelling us to believe in the order they have borrowed from the language people have imbued them with.  Our bodies, too, then become signs of the words we have lived with and through, which are the leading and shaping actions of our lives.  No wonder that a man who thought like this would attend keenly to anything that was said, including everything he could remember having said or written in his long life.  Burke was committed to listening critically to the action of language in the world, starting with this action in himself.

Burke had also been a teacher through much of his life, relating his teaching closely with his writing and his belief that understanding the meaning implicit in his expression could be helped by hearing what others read in it. He seems to have made this a principle, at least for himself, of teaching and giving talks at universities, as well as a principle of writing. He remarked to me that in teaching he never like lecturing as much as a seminar, saying he found lecturing “too much like talking to yourself.” A seminar could bring questions that would prompt new thinking. Burke’s teaching career started with temporary appointments at the New School and the University of Chicago in the 1930s and continued through the rest of his life with visiting professorships at many institutions. He was a professor at Bennington College in Vermont between 1943 and 1962.

Burke’s wrote poetry throughout his life. His first collection, Book of Moments, was published in 1955 hisCollected Poems in 1968, and a further collection, Kenneth Burke: Late Poems, 1968-1993, edited by Julie Whitaker and David Blakesley, was published in 2005.

Music had also been important to Burke since he was young. Talking to me he recalled how his father would take him for walks in Pittsburgh and stop outside a black church in the East Liberty neighborhood where they lived to listen to spirituals sung by the congregation. Burke said his father would not dare go in and that he held the normal prejudices of his class, but that these dissolved when he heard the music. He said he believed his father deliberately walked by that church on Wednesday evenings because he knew the congregation would be singing. Several times in our talks Burke sang spirituals. His voice was too hoarse to do them justice, but their words and his spare rendering of their rhythms carried the songs nevertheless. Burke said he began studying music in high school, learning piano. He said he had a feeling for music, if not technical mastery and used this in improvising. His lessons were with a piano teacher who rented rooms above the office of his family’s physician in Pittsburgh. (The physician was Malcolm Cowley’s father; Burke pointed out that Cowley, too, took piano lessons, but from another teacher, who was more expensive.) Burke said his father, James Leslie Burke, had written music and had a song published. The elder Burke had taught himself to play piano by ear; Burke’s mother could sing and they accompanied each other often on Sunday afternoons in their apartment in Weehawkin. Burke said his father also wrote sonnets a few of which were published.

Kenneth Burke was ninety-two at the time of our first visit. When we asked him how he was doing, he said, “Oh, hanging on, you know. Force of habit. Burke had long white hair combed back from his temples, penetrating blue-gray eyes appearing slightly unequal, prominently flared nostrils, and thick, expressive lips. A neatly trimmed Vandyke beard accented the triangularity of his portrait. A purple lesion marked his lower lip toward one corner of his mouth. Burke’s face was smooth, faintly stained with age spots, but barely wrinkled. His right ear was slightly deformed, its lobe broadened and flattened, something he concealed in early photographs but mentioned obliquely in his writing. His hands and wrists were muscular and articulate as a pianist’s; they played out his turning thought in vivid gestures, some heavy, others light and melodic. His fingernails were clipped to sharp points he used in lifting papers. On these visits he dressed in striped Oxford or plaid shirts with the collar unbuttoned, chinos, and, when it was cool, tweed sport coats with pens in their outer breast pockets. He wore leather sneakers and walked carefully in short, shuffling steps, usually, I noticed, humming a tune to himself as he went. All the time,” he shouted once quite suddenly, you live in fear of falling. Always in fear of falling. It’s goddamn boring. His back was hunched and twisted. Walking, he would balance with a cane, which he held to a pivot when he stopped to talk. He put on glasses when he went out.

We usually spoke in Burke’s kitchen, where he read his mail. Burke would sit at one end of the maple table there, which was strewn with books, letters, manuscripts people had sent him, announcements for conferences, pages of notes he had written. A similar mass of books and papers lay on the floor beneath the table, where he could just reach it. He said he had trouble finding things since his wife died, which was in 1969. On the walls were inked drawings she had done, one showing a cat in nine expressions, another of herons at a pond, and a third of a rustic mill. Behind him in a corner was a heavy dark cabinet on which he kept his telephone and several photographs, one showing him with his wife dressed in city clothes on a sidewalk in New York. Also on the cabinet was a small black, gray and white painting of a labyrinth of stairs, towers, and passageways by Burke’s son, Michael Burke.

At the entrance to the next room, a portable manual typewriter rested on the corner of a table, touching the window sash, which held it from falling, a sheet of paper typed a third of the way through still in is carriage. I remember seeing that on another visit, when the machine was perched in a similar way, the page was different. He had been writing. The machine sat among papers—envelopes, letters, the New York Times Book Review, typed pages with handwritten notes—with no apparent order. The light from the window read the words in the carriage, the letters and numbers on the keys, and a few exposed lines of writing thrown into diverse perspectives.

For Burke, talk and correspondence, poetry and fiction writing, were ancillary to the project of writing critical essays about texts as a search for principles of language that could outline for us the structure of our action in the world. He seemed to be still thinking his way through the implications of his writings on language and human action. He spoke of his writings as a body of work he or others could draw new conclusion from. He said he wanted people now to tell him what he had said. Always the critic, Burke wanted to hear what people thought his writings meant. He valued expression as a wellspring of clues about what he saw as our life as bodies that learn language.” “Five books have come out on me,” Burke said, “and I’ve got to answer them.” “I wanted to ask you about books,” I said. “Well,” Burke answered, that’s rather awkward, because mostly I’m reading Burke at the moment.

Brewer and I came late in the day each time and Burke would talk late into the night. I still remember the cool blackness of the New Jersey Highland hillside where he lived when we would say good-bye and walk invisibly to our car. Burke’s talk rambled, sometimes responding to a question, sometimes starting a line of reflection or recitation that went beyond anything we had asked him or any comment we had made. Brewer silently took the pictures that appear here while Burke talked and I took notes. I read more between visits and my notes seemed more and more revealing as I did so.

Burke’s speech in these interviews was difficult. He spoke haltingly and did not finish some sentences. His pronunciation tended to slur some syllables, obscuring some words, but the momentum of his sentences carried through these imperfections and as his meanings came clear these elisions almost seemed strategic, as if his clipping and slurring of syllables were necessary economies made to get things said in spite of the voice’s dwindling power. His speech would sometimes fade entirely, like a distant radio signal, but he persisted. His handwriting had slurred, as well, his written words flattening into illegible lines with minimal figuring has his pen moved across the paper. On one visit I noticed a musical score note book among the papers and books he was reading. It lay open to pages scrawled with penciled notations. He joked that posterity might be interested in these, if anyone could read them. He said he found he could not read his notations himself and had given up the project.

Though his talk was sometimes hard to follow, much of what he said echoed the themes of his books, or rippled from the contours of their thought. I had thought to make a formal interview, but found Burke’s talk too incomplete for this. I recorded what he said to me, mostly on tape and sometimes in a notebook. What follows here are transcriptions of those tapings and notes. Burke sometimes had trouble starting a sentence and repeated its opening words until he could get it going. These have been omitted silently. Burke said “by God” and “my God” in many of his sentences and I have left most of these in because they seemed expressive and dramatic. In making these transcriptions, I have used dashes to indicate pauses in Burke’s speech or places where he substituted one word for another. Where his speech trailed off, I have not indicated this if his next remark fit clearly with what he had been saying. Thus the transcriptions in some places have a fluency that Burke’s speech lacked. In most of the places where he repeated a word several times at the start of a sentence, I have given the word just once. Where words are italicized for emphasis, the emphasis is from Burke’s speech.

Burke’s talk in these visits flowed like an erratic stream, moving around obstacles age had put before him, but finding its way. Here and there the currents would eddy and slow, but then resume with vigor. A good host, Burke recited anecdotes from his literary career for his visitors and said things that helped elucidate his theory. But he also mentioned new things he was thinking about, as in his remarks on binding and loosing,” which he said he was still trying to understand. His rambling stream of talk seemed to have several currents with their own sources and directions, but the currents joined with the main stream of his ideas about language theory and critical method. This is not unlike the spirally approach to topics Burke used in many of his essays and books. I have left the transcriptions in their original order. Reading through them, they seem in their meandering to represent the drama of my experience meeting Burke.


The following transcriptions were made on June 5 and August 11, 1989, and on January 2, June 1, and June 13, 1990. Those from January 1990 were from a visit with Burke at his son Michael’s home in New York; the others were at Burke’s house in Andover, NJ.

June 5, 1989:

When we arrived for the first visit, Burke said he had to “get into a groove or he wouldn’t be able to talk. He gave me two photocopied sheets, one the “Poem” printed that year in Hebert W. Simons’ and Trevor Melia’s The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, and the other a typed page on “constitutions” that he wanted to talk about.

Burke mentioned working with Marianne Moore (1887-1972) at The Dial. “Marianne,” he said, “made a deal. ‘I want it understood, Mr. Burke, I have no appreciation at all for your stories.’ ‘All right, that’s a deal.’ And we got along fine that way. She’s the one finally ended up getting me The Dial award for my Towards a Better Life story. So she changed her attitude on that. She finally, when the poems came out—I had dirty poems, too. She said, ‘Well, he’s in a tradition there, a great tradition: Baudelaire, Rabelais and Aristophanes.’ ” He said he had been thinking about his theory of “two constitutions” that he had spoken about in Seattle at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, but then turned to an old subject close to his beginnings as a theorist. “Where I first got the word ‘symbolic action’,” Burke said, “was from [Bronislaw] Malinowski, The Meaning of Meaning, that Ogden and Richards got out [in19--]. There’s a supplement in there [by Malinowski] and he tells us that language is not to tell you what things are, it’s to get you to do things. And he tells you, it’s a form of action, and his simple example—these people, a tribe that lives by the sea—and a tribe further in—and [they] fish for them, and transfer [the fish to] them. And then he gives you the whole terminology that they have. They have a wonderful way of catching these fish. You don’t realize it, but fish catching itself is—the most marvelous thing. You get this great cooperative act. This whole group know when to get the things, where to get them, and what to do, and they call back and forth to one another—and in this great cooperative act they got the fish and then they go back home and, by God—on the way back they have a game competing in their boats. You’ve got three kinds of language out of that one thing, which started out of that one business, the one when you’re using it to catch the fish. And I think that that notion, that’s the instrumental principle.

Among the things Burke talked about in our meetings was his theory of “Two Constitutions” and he gave me a photocopy of typed page on this. The single-page text was written to develop the ideas of "Two Constitutions" Burke had recently spoken about at the “4 C’s” (the Conference on College Composition and Communication) in Seattle. “The one constitution,” Burke told me, “gave us two constitutions.” “Nobody [at the conference] ever murmured about it,” he said. “My God, maybe they took it for granted or something.” The Founding Fathers, Burke’s typescript explains, had originally given the country a constitution based on the civilization or technology of their time, economically grounded in slavery and other means of production. But the Constitution actually had become double as another kind of constitution, a technological one, developed from the original. This other was “constitution” had developed as an abstract one, an “artificial intelligence,” in the form of the country’s gross national product, which measured productivity as a whole. The Constitution, as a document, Burke theorized, could be seen as a political means for organizing groups within the country as a pluralistic society to “compete” rhetorically for the right expression that would apportion these things in the ways they wanted. Thus the Constitution was a technological and a political document. “You see,” Burke said, “I was against technology for a long time, until I realized, by God! Environmentalism’s attack on the world is really an attack on—if you attack technology, you need technology to say what’s wrong with it. The only person I can think of to give you a really radical attack on technology would be St. Augustine. He’d probably say it took your mind off God.” “One thing it [technology] has done,” Burke said, “It’s led to a whole new system of perception.” Technology, he continued, “often introduces things that throw all your plans, your original constitution, out of line.

Referring to someone who had said to him, “You kept the same thing all your life, Burke said: "Yes, kept the same theory, developed it, but kept the same thing. I started out—my first book, Counter-Statement, was the transformation I needed. I started out with theory of form. I put it under literary form, and after I’d worked on it a while, I finally discovered, my God, form was the arousal of expectation in the audience. Shakespeare, his stuff. By God, if anybody ever worked on his audience! Therefore I had a double thing as I started. I started out with the theory of form as self-expression and then theory of form as communication and for a long time I worked with those two, self-expression and communication. Then [I] found out something, a third thing was needed here—like the last stage of Joyce, the end of the line—and I found out, by God, where this thing originally started. I had a secular conversion and I left Columbia. Dick McKeon, a boy I knew very well, was in philosophy, medieval philosophy. He was a Catholic, from his family, but he lost his faith, but loved, like me. I don’t believe, but I love the theology. My dad—I made a deal with him, let me out and I’d go down to the Village [Greenwich Village in New York] and I’ll sit there and do my work, and I did, I did all the work. Dick and I were going along with a class with a Jesuit scholar giving a talk on fides quaerens intellectam, ‘faith seeking understanding.’ I’d been trying all that time to get from feelings of theology to secular equivalents of them, [linking] the idea of faith with the idea of self-expression. Your impulse, your faith, comes in as your self-expression and then the intellect, fides quaerens intellectam, ‘faith seeking understanding,’ that would be your communication. I worked on these two that way and then finally I got to the stage where, the third stage, and it transferred medieval thought. When you get to the third stage, it’s just fulfilling, you see, you finally get—what I decided to call it is the technical equivalent of inspiration, technological inspiration. You see, you’re really inspired when your vocabulary takes over. You start using words and words finally get you going and then the thing comes to life. When you get to Joyce’s last stage everything he does is carrying out; he’s inspired in that sense all the time. His terms have taken over. ‘Faith seeking understanding’ would be your way of building yourself up so that other people will follow you.”

Burke recounted attending and speaking at a memorial for Malcolm Cowley, who had recently died, at the Century Club in New York. He recalled belonging to the club once but then quitting because he could not afford it. He mentioned that he sat next to Daniel Aaron at the memorial and that Aaron had recently reviewed The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley (edited by Paul Jay, New York: Viking, 1988) for The New Republic. Burke told me he had been asked to speak at the memorial and chose to remember his high school days with Cowley in his talk. “Ellsworth Avenue was a street that we went [on] when I started to go to Peabody High School where Malcolm went. Malcolm was further down in East Liberty than I was. We found that we’d started each going over to the library at the same time. We used to walk to this library—in those days you walked, you know—and so we arranged to go down at the same time. Well, then I started—and the idea is this—this is going back, of course—birds like to fly, and sometimes fly either to get something or to get away from something, and fish like to swim, and we like to verbalize—and I had to tell my joke about ‘chewing the phatic communion’… And so then, we started out just talking back and forth, just talking, and then, by God, first thing you know we began to have something to talk about. We had to talk about classes. We’d talk about our teachers, our games, our courses. We were all interested in what we were taking there. And we got all this stuff going that way. And then, as Malcolm points out [in Exile’s Return, 1956, p. 21] lots of books [at the library] had restrictions, because some of them were a bit sexy, but most of them were just—oh, Bernard Shaw, people like that. Some of them were just too far out. We found out that some of the librarians would give us these books, some wouldn’t. So then we’d talk about that. We got our education by getting the ones that would give us these restriction books. But the whole point was, by that time, whenever I thought of something I thought I was talking about it to Malcolm. Sometimes [if] I was just reading something I would, just naturally, it was just something I did, I thought I’d tell Malcolm about it. And this time I thought—by God, I suddenly started thinking again into what I was going to say to Malcolm the next time I saw him.” Burke said that Cowley at the Century Club memorial for Cowley he had started to cry. “By God, I felt like a damn fool. I’ve known Malcolm longer than anybody in his whole family knew him. It’s the damnedest thing. When I wrote to Muriel [Cowley] about Malcolm, I said, ‘We should have died at the same time, I wish we had, but not yet!

Asked what differences he saw between himself and Cowley, Burke replied: “He and I were doing the same job, but with this difference. He got the more literary end of it, the more Bohemian end of it, and I had done this work with [Joris Karl] Huysmans [1848-1907] who actually started out—he was an understudy of Zola. His A Rebours [1884]—he [was] transforming and ended up a straight royalist, a believer. Coming through all this stuff, I had read a lot of medieval stuff, poetry, and when I got into [Remy] de Gourmont [1858-1915], Latin Mystique [1892], that was the book I needed. De Gourmont had no belief at all in theology, in religion, but he loved the beauty of the thing, you see, the beauty of the language, and, my God, that Latin Mystique of his is a wonderful book, in that respect. You’ll find in some of my early stories my use of some of the material that I got in him. And then also he put me on to some of the early Christian poets. The language was always the belief; it was always the language. When they started to modernize the Church, that’s the last chance I ever had. I could only get a thrill out of the rituals of the Church.” Then returning to his thought about Cowley, Burke said: “I was going on to what it is to be a symbol-using animal in general; he was sticking to what it means to be a literary [type]. We have an overlap, but there’s always a lot of differences in there, and that’s where we worked all our lives.” Cowley had written a sort of sociology of the twentieth century American writer in The Literary Situation, 1954.

Burke told of his childhood fall from a second story window, which resulted in a neck injury and persistent “fits,” delaying his starting school: “What happened was, I had this broken neck. I had fits and I didn’t go to school until I was about eight years old. Ironically enough when I got there in the first grade Miss Clancy—at that point, I couldn’t read. They gave me a dictionary and I carried the dictionary around and they never told me how to read the damn thing. It was funny, carrying the dictionary around. The Catholics always had these books of piety, these books of miracles and stuff like that. I remember one of them was Christ going up to heaven on a ray of light. I didn’t want to go to heaven. I wanted to put it off. Every once in a while I’d see a ray of light coming down through a cloud that way—well, [he would say] ‘This is it’—and I’d have one of my fits again. I got the fits until a doctor came, or my dad came home, either one. They’d fix me up. Every night I had this dream, this fall I had, oh, my God, going out a second story floor, I lost my grip. But Miss Clancy, she created a class to read this book, Heidi [Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning, by Johanna Spyri 1860. Oh, boy. That’s where I first got my dislike of technology. Heidi is a wonderful book. There’s a lot of stuff in it, reactionary stuff that I didn’t know about at all. All I [would] know is there was this one little kid up on a cavern on the mountainside, lived up there with the sheep. My whole business, the technology thing, I’d kept this a long time, and then I had a problem about it, because, my God, technology is in, and I felt so bad about it. I finally solved that problem for myself: technology is your whole feeling of—what’s the word for it—oh, God damn it, what’s the word I’m trying to get—the word for attack on pollution—environmentalism is technology’s self-criticism. If you say something is polluting, you’ve got to get a technological expert to tell you what it is. If anything in the world, I’m a critic; and that solved everything for me.

“I don’t think that technology can give you a vision, but it gives you a conceit and the conceit is that we are the only animal that, by God, it’s as though nature had done this job of producing someone who could talk.”

August 11, 1989:

I asked Burke if he would talk more about his childhood fall from a second story window in our August meeting: “Oh, yes. Oh, that was—that was, the trick was, I had this fall. I had a broken neck, literally a broken neck. When I was a kid, around the back of my neck there, I was young, and they said my neck was actually broken, and I could push a little spot there and make my heart flop. Until a few years ago I could do that, push there and make my heart flop—and I think it had a lot to do with my sleeping problem. But anyhow, I didn’t go to, didn’t go to school, and I was so irritated that during that period [that] my mother never taught me anything about reading—she just thought it was something that was taught at school, you see, and I could have read. They gave me a dictionary, and I carried that damn dictionary and didn’t know a word in it. And so, then, later on I was—the best thing that ever happened to me—because when I got to words, by God, I loved ’em so—boy I ate ’em up from that time on. I learned what words are!” “My mother,” Burke said, “she wasn’t intellectual herself, she never thought of this, doing it that way. She thought it [learning to read] would be done at school. The first place I went to school,” Burke said, “in Bruxton—Bruxton is one of the low suburbs of Pittsburgh.” He told more of his first reading at school, Heidi, saying his teacher “used to teach us and read us little bits of Heidi and Heidi gave me my whole feeling about, dislike of technology. She [Burke’s first grade teacher] kept the kids busy… if they didn’t stay good, she wouldn’t read them their Heidi every day. The whole class went for that damn book. But later on I realized it was quite a reactionary book, in a way, but I didn’t know. I got this beautiful Swiss landscape. But then after I’d gone through school for a long time I knew what I wanted to do. I had two years of Greek and six years of Latin and they still wouldn’t let me take any Medieval Latin at school. That you had to take at graduate school and I was still taking regular [undergraduate courses]. I was going to Columbia then and finally I made a deal with Dad. I said, ‘Pap, I’ll make a deal with you.’ I said, ‘Let me stop, send me down to the Village and just give me enough to live on and I’ll go one with my work.’ And I did. People used to come and look and say, ‘By God, there was a guy that was really working.’ I went over my Greek. I became a Loeb’s Classics scholar of Greek. I had all the basic texts.” I asked Burke why he was so interested in Latin: “Well,” he said, “for one thing, I just took a shine to language. I learned Esperanto, a wonderful language—if you know Latin, you almost know it already—and I took to languages very much—did my German, and I made a living a long time translating from German.” On learning German, Burke said, “I went to school on that, started out in school, and then I took a course—I started it for pronunciation. I took a course with Berlitz. But, I always said, I got so deep into—well, of course, the book that made a terrific difference to me, the one book in the world that made a difference to me was Remy de Gourmont’s Latin Mystique. That thing—you see, de Gourmont was not a believer. He was completely a disbeliever, but he knew, he saw the beauty of, well, the beauty of religion, and he had this book, a marvelous book—you should have a look at it. You’ll never get over it; it’s got all kind of stuff. Now that I’m back with religion again, not as a believer, but as a lover, I find that—I always say, even an amoeba may have religion, but he doesn’t have theology. And why I like is theology.” “Another twist I got into,” Burke said, continuing on his beginnings, “was—you see, Malcolm [Cowley] got his start out of [Henry] Murger, Scene de la Vie de Boheme [1888], ‘Scenes of the Life of the Bohemian.’ Then I got into the French, to Huysmans. Huysmans had originally been an understudy of Zola—a materialist, a materialistic thinker—and, by God, when he began to write, he had to get converted. The book that made sense to me was A Rebours. That book—you go through that thing, he goes through that line there and comes out—he’s converted. I got into that for a while. I realize I was in a whole stage of my life that’s completely lost; I’ve lost it totally. I’ve got to go back—and I began to realize how deep it was with me; I followed this fellow so damn thoroughly. And then I got into—even anti-Semitism, a literary kind. Hitler fixed me up completely. I was very anti-Semitic, but I certainly got over it. I was wild about Spinoza, Bergson.” Burke noted that anti-Semitism was common enough in those days and in his family, though he was now “ashamed of it.” Burke continued: “I got over the damn thing, but it was there for quite a while. One thing I always loved was literature that—battles, all kinds of fighting, and so in Cicero’s ‘Oration against Catiline’—I remember, I used to love that thing, read it over and over, in all its venom. Then, my God, at that stage, a certain leftover of the Civil War, of the French Revolution, a Catholic movement, intellectual Catholics who attacked that whole war, and I got into that. I’m trying to get it straightened out now. But what I felt was, when they started fixing up the Church, modernizing the rituals, and so on, my only chance of ever being saved was, if they kept the Latin.”


Burke described his getting a job at The Dial as fortuitous: “They were looking for Malcolm [Cowley] for it,” he said. “I didn’t find this out till later. They couldn’t find Malcolm. You see, they [Schofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson, The Dial’s publishers] were both Harvard men, so they naturally got work in that way. Malcolm was much more able to get around than I ever was. I don’t know what would have happened to me [if it] hadn’t happened that way.”

About age, Burke remarked, “I’ve found out when you get old, there’s two of you. There’s you and your body; and your body sets the rules, house rules, and, by God, you obey the house rules, or else [it’s] out with you, kid.”

“My whole thing now,” Burke said, “I’ve got my technology business. Did I tell you this thing? There’s different languages. Even when you’re learning the same language, you’re learning a different language. And your body, see, all what we call psychogenic illnesses—that’s your body, you taught your body that. It’s just a matter of languages. You learn a language in such a way that you end up with—well, like [Marcel] Proust, you end up with asthma, and then somebody else turns up with stomach ulcers.”

January 2, 1990:

Referring again to psychogenic illness: “When I wrote Towards a Better Life, that was written in high blood pressure and when I wrote the sequel I turned it around. I turned my whole method of writing around. I changed my ways of writing and my thinking. Whereas before that I thought always that you fought your enemy, I began to realize, my God, your enemy is useful to you. He’d tell you something your friend wouldn’t tell you. I really felt that—get a nice mean enemy and you learn a lot from him. I had Sidney Hook, when I wrote my Attitudes toward History. He reviewed it as though I was a Stalinist. I’d used the word ‘bureaucratization of the imaginative’ and he thought I’d universalized the thing in order to save Stalin.” Sidney Hook (1902-1989), philosopher and social critic, had died he summer before Burke made these remarks. Burke mentioned at this point his plan to write letters to people who had died, including Hook. He said that he could never pronounce Hook’s name correctly after Hook’s attack on Attitudes toward History, thereafter dubbing him “Shitney” Hook. The problem had a precedent, Burke said, in the Bible, the pet insult becoming his “shibboleth.” He said he would have to tell Hook about this in the letter he planned to write him, to clear the air; after that he would say to Hook, “You’re a good man,” and go on to tell him, “You did misunderstand me.” With this, Burke returned to the Cowley theme. “Everything I wrote, I always told Malcolm about it,” he said, but “that began to break down” shortly before Cowley died. “While Malcolm was still alive,” Burke said, “he said he didn’t want to talk about ideas anymore.” On the Century Club memorial for Cowley Burke said: “When I got back [to the Century Club, which he had belonged to years before] I felt the whole place was different and sensed a terrible feeling that something had gone and then I started to cry and then I was so damn vexed because after all I was a rhetorician. If you [a rhetorician] cry, you should do it purposely! And if you did it on purpose, it would be awful! Either way, it was awful, you see. One is professional crying and it would be a dirty trick.”

Responding to a question about technology: “It’s critical, criticism. Permanence and Change—the book starts out with criticism: the wily trout, food as bait, the critic. And at the end of the book, I end up with a little routine of the poetry of cooperation. Then competition is a phase of cooperation—can’t compete without having an organism that has great cooperation in all its parts. Well, that’s all just conceits,” Burke said, emphasizing the word. “Nothing—no visions, just conceits.”

June 1, 1990:

Burke mentioned several times that he was trying to understand the phrase “binding and loosing” that he thought represented something he had written about years before and that might be a lead into a new idea. “In my head, the words ‘binding and loosing’ is a formula—the keys, the powers of binding and loosing is a way of working at form and I cannot locate it again. I don’t know where the hell I got it and why it disappeared. It’s sort of, well, making a contract; ‘binding and loosing,’ making a contract with God, or something like that, a serious contract. You make a vow, a votary of some sort, that’s the ‘binding’. If a person can be bound to kill a pagan, for instance, you’d bind him. In war we all have binding and loosing. A man in war is supposed to kill the enemy, yet ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is a famous law, you see. That sort of thing has to change the thing around. The pacifists get out of war that way. Pacifism would be a ‘binding and loosing’ kind of thing I have in mind.”

Burke wanted me to read his essay on Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand.” “The trouble about this thing—” Burke said, “this is just note-taking, and therefore it’s not finished at all. I’m in this absurd position of showing you how, when something’s unfinished, [you are] supposed to finish everything.” “Your notion is that you’re supposed to finish,” I said. “Yes,” Burke said. “I take notes. The way I taught my course up at Bennington, I realized—I found out that I was really teaching them what is called ‘Deconstruction’ I told them, ‘Anything could come out of your note-taking’. Anything went. The first half of the year they’d take notes while I was talking—take anything out of it—each would be making it—analyzing—making it—the terminology of a book. The usual thing that would happen, they’d got to a—and some word—they’d write that down in the book. They’d get certain words that fit their scheme. They could even do that, you see. Quite possible—somewhere it fits in that—the two books overlap. Anything goes in your first draft, that way. Then we had this term off—an administrative problem up there, Bennington was too damn cold to heat in the winter. The winter term off, they would get jobs or something. The first half of the term, they’d take notes on the book. And then I would have a discussion with them and they’d show me their notes to show me what they got out of it. The midterm [they would] show me a copy of all the material. And when they got back [he would ask them], ‘Now what could you prove out of all this? Just use what you’ve got proof of, how it develops, and work out this theory. That’s the way I taught, started out, to take notes. And this example, this story of Hawthorne’s, the story of ‘Ethan Brand’—I used to take notes on ‘Ethan Brand’. I’ve got all kinds of notes in there. To give a good example of what I meant by note-taking: for instance, if I started writing a review, the first thing I’d get would be—after I’d read a few pages I’d get the title I wanted for it. At first I wouldn’t even know what the title was for it. For instance, one thing you can try to do with titles: If the title is formal, then you could look for individuating terms for it. For instance, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: I would say the first section is the introduction; the introduction is preparation, building of the terms; and I say that the name for that is ‘The Pandybat’, because the pandybat starts it all going there. The priest takes his hand”—here Burke made a slapping gesture on his own hand to illustrate. “Then the last chapter, which could be the completion of the thing, I would use some word like ‘The Refusal’, something like that. The idea would be this: in that chapter, when he’d been asked to become a priest and the priest holds—takes his hand and starts asking him to become a priest, he pulls his hand away, no violence, but he pulls away. And then he crosses a little stream, a little bridge over the stream, and he goes this way, and four priests are going this way. He’s going out, going in, like that. I use terms—imagistic terms, like that. In that case I would tentatively—if he’d called it ‘The Pandybat’, I would have called it something else; I would have taken a formal name for it. That’s the idea. It’s a tentative way. You see, what I figure is that everything you do, you keep looking for titles for your work and for what titles are going on in the meantime. You get the idea? You always keep watching for terms. That’s why I keep watching out all the time. You find out—but I find out I gotta put in one place, sometime soon, all my definitions I’ve given. Each one of those definitions has been a stepping forward in my way of working things out. And what I find out when I said, ‘We are bodies that learn language’, the last step I got in that definition of ‘the symbol-using animal’: ‘that learn language’—it brought out certain things I hadn’t thought of before. Things that you do as a body and things that you do with language.”

Continuing is talk about the relations of the formal and individual meaning, Burke talked about a connection between his writing and music. “I discovered that because of my interest in music I have a twist in my writing that’s never been developed. What I did finally, to at least make it useful—since I write so badly now, I can’t read my writing anyhow—the idea was that I would write down anything that happened that I got a tune. I’d just write down the tune and then—say a phone call came, a person called up about something or other and then I would—immediately a tune occurred to me—what did that have to do with the phone call? Then I would write down, ‘Phone call with so and so; who said such and such’. Every tune is a response to a situation and I have a whole way of working that way, a twist. But the idea is that anything goes in your first draft. That’s a law. Anything goes in the first draft. You see I have [an essay called] ‘Auscultation, Creation, and Revision’. Auscultation is the pulse-beat, then creation is the relation in the formula—” “The nearest approach—apostrophes—poetry that is very apostrophic, like a sudden splurge, a sudden expression, is the nearest you get to symbolism and reality—and verbal reality. You get an attitude. The attitudes in poems are that sort. I’ve got a whole theory coming from that thing I quote about moods in poems, ‘Our moods don’t believe in each other’. The absolute—and Emerson uses his symbolic words and his analogical words and his ritualistic—very interchangeable all the time. That thing I did on his ‘Eye, I, Aye’ gives a good example of that. But here’s—this thing—this thing can get—.” At this point Burke resumed looking among the papers on his table for his “Ethan Brand” essay, which he wanted me to read. The essay is “Ethan Brand: A Preparatory Investigation,” The Hopkins Review 5 (Winter 1952): 45-65.

“I found out that a poem or tune or idea,” Burke continued, “occurs after—a tune occurred to me after a phone call, then I wrote that down and wrote down what happened when I got this phone call. Somehow that’s a response to that. You try to get’ em. It’s rough. You try to do as you can. Now next time—my tune varies quite a bit. Suppose I find, here’s another tune, a totally different relationship, that has this same damn tune turns [sic] up in there. Well, then I think, my God, it’s a matter of putting that—a totally different world—that’s my real world—that’s what this other thing—and I began to work—it’s spying on yourself.” Burke related this to his memories of Malcolm Cowley, picking up again the theme of their mutual discovery that their talking together on the way to and from the library in their high school days became the beginning of shared interests that lasted and developed over their literary careers. “In those days you walked to the big public library. We found out we were walking over certain hours, at the same time, so we agreed to go over together. Well, the first thing you do, walking with somebody you don’t know—I use Malinowski’s idea of ‘phatic communion’—and I had a pun on it, ‘chewing the phatic communion’—then gradually, we began to have something to talk about. We’d talk about our teachers, we’d talk about our courses, and our fellow students. The first thing you know, by God, we had a whole world to go with. Then we were terribly interested in our reading at that time. Particularly, we’d found this way of getting the minor restriction books. The minor restriction books were—by God, they weren’t porn. Never got any porn. They were just books that—oh, George Bernard Shaw was ‘minor restriction’. We found out certain librarians would give us books, certain ones wouldn’t. Then we’d talk about which ones we’d know—if we went to her, might get a book. [Another librarian] gave us all the writers he could. Some of those were a little on the edge of porn. Schnitzler, for instance, had a lot of stories of, well, whores, and things like that, not in a big way, but a little bit on the side. Then the articles published in The Smart Set [were] right on the edge.”

Burke made his way back to Remy de Gourmont. “When I began to lose my religion, he [de Gourmont] taught me the beauty of Latin literature, and I got it all in poems. I went from truth to beauty. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all you need to know’—you get that in Keats, you know. I had my analysis of ‘Ode to [sic] a Grecian Urn’, which, by the way, Denis Donoghue mentions in a book he just got out and sent to me. He, finally, after all these years, disagrees with my analysis if the ‘Urn’. But the irony is that I also have a second analysis of the ‘Urn’. Remember the D. H. Lawrence ‘How I Learned Dirty Words’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty; body is turd, turd body, that’s the miracle.’ The irony is that I had both. The way I get into the other one, there’s a formula; I get Freud in there. Freud had a thing called the cloacal theory. Freud becomes, ironically enough, a Trinitarian. Well, I carried out the cloacal theory to perfection in this thing. I take it that Freud’s Trinitarian theory is the real truth about the body. The body is the way of seeing tings. You see, my notion is that poetry is very radical. Of course, in Flaubert, in his Education of St. Anthony, there he ends up with matter and matter is just simply filth. He ends up in getting the final reduction of reality, material things. He never got over that. It had a terrible effect on me. I had a period when I really saw everything in those terms. I find I analyze a poem in which I analyze, analyze my own stuff, my poem on the cloacal theory, ‘Ecclesia’—there’s a formula of ‘church over a sewer’ [Collected Poems, p. 84]—a strange thing—and how real is that? I went to the last minute here; didn’t get changed into modern plumbing till very late, till Libby [Burke’s second wife] was having trouble. Had to do it then. But, by God, I had staying at the place up the hill for a while. He was a psychoanalyst and the kid—finally he had to get away because his kid was so horrified, because they had the ‘can’ out there and the kid—he finally decided the kid was too mixed up. He found out that carrots, for instance, were born in the dirt. The kid couldn’t take it. I said, ‘My God, if you’ve got a kid that can’t take the reality of the body.’ ”

Again on the subject of “tunes,” Burke said, “I find that when I take a bath it is a ritual. I have a way into it, a way of developing it. I had a funny thing happen. I happened to fall over backwards on the floor—got careless, fell over backwards onto the floor. My God, I couldn’t get up. I wasn’t hurt in any way, but it took me almost an hour to get up and the only way I could do it was this: I had a tune, the tune was finishing up, you see, leaving, and at this interval I dropped to the floor. I had to get myself turned over, had to get pushed up, and this damn tune, that notion wouldn’t go that far. Finally, I had to give up the tune entirely and make another tune, like starting out, not finishing up. I threw the tune away, threw the old tune away. I made a new one. As soon as I did that, I got up, no problem at all.”

Burke in his nineties thought he might rely on others writing about his work and the subjects he studied to give insights about their meaning, which he would accept if they were thoroughly worked out, whether they affirmed his conclusions or not. “I’m the eponymous founder of six Kenneth Burke societies and I’ve worked out this theory of ‘operation benchmark’ and ‘operation benchmark’ is: Anybody can belong to any of these societies; if he disagrees with me completely, he has to say, ‘Burke says this and I say that’.” A few minutes later, talking about people who had written recently about him, Burke said: “You see, what I’ve found is that I’m asking them, ‘What am I saying?’ I’m not telling them anymore; I’m asking them, ‘What am I saying?’ ” On one of my visits, a phrase similar to this was written on a sheet in the carriage of Burke’s typewriter.

Returning to his thought on ‘binding and loosing,’ Burke said, “I’ve got a feeling I did something along that line. My ‘Perspective by Incongruity’ is mixed up with that. I’d put two things together that before weren’t together. So I’m sure that the principle of ‘binding’ is there in that sense, but what the devil goes on from there I don’t know.” With this he turned to the philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952): “Santayana was a wonderful guy who didn’t believe in religion except as a trick. He was a regular Marxist in [relation] to religion, but he liked the idea of it. He started with the principle of solipsism. You go from solipsism to high development of nomenclature, solipsism to your secularized theology—‘Realms of Being’, he calls them. His psychology is completely secular. There’s a principle of transcendence in your body and all that is your tricks with language. He’s my patron saint, you know. Somebody told me up at Boston once, the James boys were afraid of him. They didn’t—he wasn’t right.”

Burke spoke again of his religion in childhood. When he was young, he said, he “got tied in with the Christian Scientists and the whole thing there is the verbal cure. I was a Christian Scientist. The thing about Mary Baker Eddy is that she—it was a science. The whole thing was a matter of error. Sin was an error and pain was an error and that’s where I lost my religion, my faith in Christian Science. Pain—my God—there were actual people in institutions that didn’t have pain, when they were young, children that didn’t fight, they didn’t have their sensations and therefore they didn’t know how to take care of themselves. Pain is your great admirer and the trouble is we have so many painkillers we haven’t learned to [use] pain [in this way] anymore.” Burke said his had lost his faith in Christian Science when he was in high school. He remembered a Christian Science practitioner who came to his home when he was about six and prayed for him when he had a swelling that his family feared was tuberculosis. “The thing burst and I got better,” he said. But he had a cousin who had gone to a regular doctor for the same thing and had died. Christian Science seemed better than medicine, Burke said, because in those days all the doctors did was to put poultices on these swellings, which didn’t work. Referring to his cousin, he said, “They put poultices on his, and they burst inside and choked him. The marvelous thing is I did get better from it. I remember going to school with that damn thing; if it burst, I’d come home.” Burke related his memories of Fourth of July fireworks and tetanus infections kids incurred from being wounded by them to his realization that Christian Science’s doctrine of “error” couldn’t be true. “We got these big enormous things, lit ‘em and they’d blow up. They all came from China. The Chinese, they had corked them with mud and that mud was Chinese dirt, full of tetanus. You see, after the Fourth of July in those days there would be these stories of people dying of tetanus. It was fantastic. You get one of these damn things that blows up and you get a wound; once you get that dirt put into your blood you’re done for. I knew that tetanus was a bug; there’s no error about that. That was accurate and if you got tetanus in your blood stream it was tetanus did it, the bug that did it, not any error. It was a standard thing after every Fourth of July. Kids’d pick up something and thought it was done and just as they’d get there it would blow up belatedly. There were several of those things. There was tetanus; that was one. There was sleeping sickness and there was—oh, what the devil—whooping cough. Whooping cough was a terrible thing. There were four of those things they already knew, other than the one you get when you get bitten by a dog or something—rabies. They had four of those things lined up that way, the beginnings of your modern medicine. There was no error about those.”

I asked Burke about his remark that while at Columbia he had started to think a metaphysic could be turned into a psychology. “I started in belief,” he said. “And of course psychology—the whole idea of cure, belief—I knew stories about people who would die. This other business, turning it around, and you just tell yourself you’re feeling good. Certainly, there’s no question about it; you can worry yourself more really than you have to.”

Turning back to “Ethan Brand,” Burke said, “You see, what I did on the thing, I first ‘joyced’ the name: ‘Heathen-Ethan-Heathen Brand’; and then the ‘Brand’ is ‘burnt’: ‘Heathen Burned’. And of course the whole story is about his burning, the lime kiln, you see. ‘Kill’ is a pun on ‘kiln’: ‘k-i-l-n’, ‘kiln’. People say ‘kill’ but it’s really ‘kiln’. One of the first things I do, tentatively, in everything I read, I look at the man’s name, try hexing it, try ‘joycing’ the name. You see, you take—well, the best example I have of that is ‘Flaubert-Bouvard’. ‘Bouvard’ as ‘Bovary’—‘Bouvard et Pechuchet’ and ‘Bouvard’ and ‘Bovary’. He said himself, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’. He was very delicate about names like that.” Continuing, Burke said: “Also I think my trick with ‘Perspective by Incongruity’—my word for the opposite of the imaginative was ‘bureaucratization’, and I remember when Bill Brown discovered ‘Bureauke’—‘Burkeratization of the imaginative.”

Burke said that in hindsight he realized that in writing Towards a Better Life “I was “building a life for myself.” “Justice is when you do it all to yourself. That’s the basic rule: you finally punish yourself.” Quoting the last words of Towards a Better Life, “Silence, that the storm will be heard descending in all its fullness,” Burke said: “My God, here I’m gonna spend my life talking and here—with silence. What have I done to myself? Why did I put that curse on myself?”

Burke mentioned that in high school he had admired Jack London. “He [London] had a theory of what we would call ‘magic’, I guess. He was a socialist, very leftist, but very snooty about the white as the greatest race on the earth. Working it out that way, his idea was that they were the only ones that could see this great socialist wish carried through. They had a superior way of looking at things, racists.”

Speaking again of Marianne Moore Burke mentioned someone he had recently met who had been studying Moore. “She specialized in Marianne Moore and her idea was obviously that Marianne Moore had no sex in her and I thought that was so goddamn dumb. She was the most sexy woman I ever met and yet she didn’t know it herself. She taught me to flush. Certain associations would make her flush. Taught me for a while; I could flush for a while. But, my God, we had a sort of—it had water in it—big fountain there, big can for our water, and sometimes the water wouldn’t come down right and she says, ‘Oh, you just put your hand right up in there’ and the great—oh!” But sex, Burke said, “was the last thing she ever thought about. I was [once],” he said, “in an awkward position to come to her defense. There was a guy up in Bennington tried to say, ‘Tell me this, was Marianne Moore your mistress?’ I said, ‘My God! Now I’ve seen the world!’ If I had been wise, I would have said, ‘I’m not saying.’ ”

Burke showed us two books he had annotated as examples of his “indexing,” which he made into a technique central to his teaching, writing, and reading. This was Burke’s method of listing key terms from a work that he thought might as a set represent the work’s “motives,” an interpretive technique he developed for his unfinished “Symbolic of Motives.” He thought his “Ethan Brand” essay represented the method clearly. It also assumes an important role in his educational scheme in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education,” published in Modern Philosophies and Education, the 1955 Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, by the University of Chicago. (This essay is the subject of an anecdote Burke told a moment later.) One of the books Burke showed us was Wilhelm Windelband’s 1901 History of Philosophy, which he said was from his study at Columbia; the other was William H. Rueckert’s Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations (1982). Both books were copiously annotated in pencil. Burke opened their indexes side by side on a desk to show that he would add terms to a book’s index as he read it. Paging through Rueckert’s book he told an anecdote. “Did I ever tell you about this essay I did in the—theories of education. Maritain did Catholicism, I did theory of language, and so on. I started to use this book that year [with] the kids [at Bennington], [asking them to] just take one of these things at a time and discuss it this way, and I had my own chapter in there. Coming back on the train down from Albany to New York, I could see a guy that was looking at my book sitting next to me. Finally he says, ‘Pardon me, I wonder if you could answer some questions about that book. There’s a chapter in there that didn’t make any sense to me. I wonder if you would help me. It’s the one of Burke.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I won’t say I can speak for Burke, but I could say what it means to me.’ So he says, ‘Take some sentences; start from them. What does this mean? What does he mean by that?’ I’d say it the other way, you see, and then, [the other man would say] ‘Well, why didn’t he say that?’ Finally, we were all this way and by God he got into the swing of the thing and he began to see it. Then, we got into New York, time to close up, and he said finally, ‘You’ve done a wonderful good, because my sister [is] up in Columbia, the girls’ school there, and she’s doing this chapter on Burke and she asked me to help her. I couldn’t make any sense. My God, you sound wonderful.’ And then he introduced [himself to] me. He says, ‘I happen to be down on Wall Street’. And I said, ‘You know who I am?’ ‘You’re not Burke, are you?’ The kids [at Bennington] thought it was a damn lie.” Burke opened a folded letter he found in one of the books on the desk. It was from teacher, critic, and poet Elder Olson (1909-92) about Towards a Better Life. The letter, which Burke read interpreted Birle’s novel as “euphuistic.&rdquo: “It never occurred to me,” he said.  “It’s true in a sense.  The book is really euphuistic.  You see, Euphues is a guy that can’t tell what his name is until he sees his girl.  I never thought of it before.  I must remember I’ve got it [the letter] in there, when I go over that book.”  Then he turned to the Windelband volume, showing his notes in the text, his underlining and circling.  “It’s the one I studied at Columbia.  The last part of this thing, back there, you get into this theory of values.  I’ll never forget Nietzsche’s ‘transvaluation of all values’.  That’s where this comes out.”  Burke said he could show us similarly annotated volumes of Aquinas and Freud.  “And this book,” he said.  “Boy, I used this thing.  And that last chapter.  I didn’t even study that when I was up there [at Columbia University], but I got working on it myself, later.”

June 13, 1990:

Showing again the annotated copy of Windelband’s History of Philosophy, and referring to Kant, on whom he had written notes at the back, Burke commented:  “He was all based on knowledge and apparently he never knew a woman.”   The notes said: “Immediate knowledge, knowing is feeling.”  “Get that, too,” he said.  “Those are good notes.  His third book is feeling, it can’t be either proved or refuted.”  I read some of the notes aloud, with Burke reading silently:  “Kantian epistemology might be the most ingenious symbolic structure ever made, in its way of growing from itself.  With regard to the thinking of the body, I can’t keep from wondering whether this fantastically inventive solution to the problem of knowledge could possibly have been thus thoroughly pursued if he had ever known a woman.”  Burke said he wanted to show me his notes in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, but couldn’t find the volume.  “By God,” he said.  “They’re wonderful notes.”  Burke’s attention just then was distracted to the facet of his kitchen sink, which dripped almost imperceptibly.  “Look at that damn thing,” he said.  “That thing—you turn that thing off, and you go—twice, lately, I’ve come out and that thing was doing that all night long.  The last minute, isn’t good enough.  You’ve got to come back and close it again.  And it costs me money.  Money, money, money, money!”

“I told you my new scheme,” Burke said, referring to his being the “eponymous founder” of several “Kenneth Burke Societies.”  “[For] anybody [that] belongs to the society,” Burke said, “for the whole thing: ‘operation benchmark’.  In other words, anything you start, you locate it, and you don’t have to agree with me on anything.  ‘Burke says this, I say that’.  Then I say, ‘If it’s right, and they got me, and there’s nobody in my society that can take care of it, then, by God, he’s right and I’m through anyhow.  I saw an ad for a paper on Coleridge.  I’ve got to get some people in my group to look at that for me.  In my Philosophy of Literary Form all my work I did on Coleridge—terrific amount of work on Coleridge—analyzed all his magical poetry, his ‘Ancient Mariner’, all his opium stuff.  If he’s found a different way, then our outfit should do one of two things: either bring him in, or else, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you.  You didn’t mention Burke.’  I swear to God I don’t see how the hell they can beat me on that that I did on Coleridge.  I’d be surprised.  Anyhow, there’s certainly something he can add to the Burke stuff on Coleridge.  If he does it some other way entirely, that’s something else, but I don’t see how in hell he could do anything without saying, ‘Burke said this and I say that’.  I took all Coleridge’s poems and analyzed them on different aspects of the drug addiction business and ended up with ‘Kubla Khan’.  I had a whole new thing I did on ‘Kubla Khan’.  It’s in Oscar Williams.  It’s one of my analyses where I say why I’m doing it at the same time.” (The essay is in Williams’ Master Poems of the English Language, 1966, reprinted as “Kubla Khan: A Protosurrealist Poem” in Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action.)

Reading an article on Aquinas in The New York Review of Books, for June 22, 1990, Burke said he was thinking of animals’ souls.  The animal, he said, “can’t reflect on things, because he hasn’t got words to reflect on.  I always say, ‘An amoeba may have religion, but doesn’t have theology’.  One of the great problems that you find about rhetoric in this thing too is that often—you see, in the Middle Ages, theology was knowledge and you had questions.  We treat science that way now, but we admit that science always changes.  The Church couldn’t do that.  The point is that the relation between belief in theology and rhetoric would be like the Stoic one, science and rhetoric: Science was your knowledge and rhetoric was what you do about it, how you get people to act.  In all those guys the soul was just a thinner matter.  Everything was matter.”

Burke stood at his kitchen counter, leaning on it over an open page of the New York Review of Books, talking about an article he had been reading.  “Peristroika,” he pronounced, saying that he had been figuring out how to say it in a way that would reveal some pun within it.  He had heavily underlined the page.  (On another visit, in the same place he had a paper copy of Language as Symbolic Action, the binding cracked and the book divided in two, open to two essays he was reading together.)  He had notes penned in the margins of the paper, paragraphs reddened with his underlining and circling.  His marginal notes were words he wanted to remember particularly.  He said he had to check on “Kulaks” as the term for those in Stalin’s Russia who exploited peasants.  “Intifada is the PLO resistance movement,” he said.  “I have to learn all these damn words.”  He punningly linked “Peres”— then the Israeli prime minister—and “perestroika” and suggested jokingly that Peres “ought to get a little perestroika.”

Speaking again of constitutions, Burke said, “I say that we’re the symbol-using animal.  Well, what’s so basic about that?  Well, you organize.  What it is that organizes the symbol-using animal, is a constitution.  It’s a constitution that is a way of living together.  One thing about it, our way of living is self-constituted.  We actually have a written constitution.  We’re the only one that has a written constitution.  You tell me that we can ever do it any other way.  We’ve got something here that, if you’re gonna change it, [you might] change it all kinds of ways, make it some kind of Fascism, or anything.  There are so many attempts now to gain control of this whole system by the big information racket.  I say that it may go this way, it may go that way, but we’re in it now to stay and we’re gonna go on from there.  You can’t make one [a constitution] that will stick.  Animals, they have a way of doing things and that’s the way they do them.  But with a person, you make a constitution, and every few years a new twist in your constitution.”


On this visit, I walked down to Burke’s pond, which filled the little valley across the road.  The pond dates to about 1930, when Burke dammed the stream running there, paying for it with money he received from the 1929 Dial Award, which he was given “for service to literature.” In its springtime fullness the pond’s waters would be visible from the front windows of Burke’s house.  He joked, “Other people that got that award, their money might have gone over the dam, but, by God, I got the dam.”  He called it “Lake Bottom.”  The dam was cement, some 21 inches thick and more than fifty yards long, giving an eight-foot head of water for the pond.  It had a few cracks, some patched with tar, some with mortar, and it was colonized with moss and lichen medallions.  The water poured through a spillway eight feet across, rushing down a cement ramp with the sound of a torrent, foaming and roiling there, resuming again, after being part of this human artifice, its nature as a narrow stream disappearing among alders, willows, viburnums and maples, and thence under an unpaved lane.  Six cement steps descended alongside the spillway to the stream, the uppermost bearing the imprint of a foot, large enough to be an adult’s, and the lowest seven handprints and the small rounded figure of someone’s buttocks.  Catching water splashing from the spillway, the handprints when I was there were visited by the red-spotted newt, coming to drink.  The torrent is loudest down there, racing from the pond and disappearing beneath the bushes.  Beyond its spillway, the dam makes an oblique turn, flanked on its downstream side with swamp bushes and trees, its watery boundary brimming against the concrete.  The view up the pond mirrored the shrubby, sedgy banks, thickly growing trees, and the oblique descent of a wooded hillside defining the valley.  The pond was long and sinuous, its banks tangled with viburnum and maple, cattails and sedges.  On my springtime visits I could hear frog choruses ringing there at night and songbirds in the daytime.  Pumpkinseeds lurked in the shallows and larger fish briefly touched the air making slowly fading concentric rings on the surface farther out.  The pond’s surface was littered with pollen, leaves, drowned insects collecting as detritus behind shoreline snags where water-striders skated.  Swallows darted in looping curves after insects above open stretches of the water.  The air was cobwebby along the path leading to it, thick at night with moths and mosquitoes.  When I returned Burke repeated William Carlos Williams’ comment on the pond: “It’s still wet.  Still wet.”

The last recording I had from these visits is of Burke reading his inscription in my copy of his Collected Poems, by the poem “Lines from out my Scatteredhood.”  The words are illegible in the volume.  The inscription said “Aubade, a morning song.  An aubade, a morning song, as versus a song of mourning.”  “You see,” he said, “here it is the last thing in the book.  I ended on a good note.  Pointing to the piece on the opposite page, he read, “the chance to have lived / the need to die” and remarked that that poem had been “an answer to Schopenhauer, I guess.”

* William Cahill is an independent scholar who is affiliated with the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University.  He can be contacted via email at wcahill7@gmail.com.  

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"“Always Keep Watching for Terms”: Visits with Kenneth Burke, 1989-90; by William Cahill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Kenneth Burke and Contemporary Philosophy of Science

Andrew Kidd, University of Minnesota

KENNETH BURKE CRITICALLY RESPONDED to numerous academic trends throughout his long career and one of his earliest such intellectual engagements was with the Logical Positivist movement in philosophy, which enjoyed an influential, albeit brief, period of prominence in the 1930s. Although positivism was breathing its last gasps as a major philosophical force by the time The Grammar of Motives was published in 1945, its influence remained strong enough that Burke felt obliged to respond to the scientism which still permeated the academic hallways of the time. Burke tried to present an alternative to a model of empirical thought which he felt was excessively reductionist and overly rash in its rejection of metaphysical thought or linguistic alternatives to the positivist model of inquiry. In its place, he advocated a “critical realism” which tried to accommodate the notion of an objective reality existing independently of the individual, with an equal acknowledgment of the role language plays in our own specific interpretations of reality (Brock, 1999; Heath, 1986).

Ironically, while Burke was putting forth his logocentric alternative to empiricism of the Logical Positivists, philosophers of science themselves were also coming up with their own alternatives to a philosophy which left too many gaping holes, and came to similar conclusions with their own models of inquiry. “Scientific realism,” the most prominent of these alternatives to logical positivism, came about from philosopher’s attempts to explain how a scientific theory is able to “work” even when it is based in non-observables. Accordingly, scientific realism postulates that our theories in science work because they are literally true, and that the acceptance of theories as true hinges on how well they are able to explain and provide a generalized description of external reality through the fulfillment of the required axiomatic propositions, and not on empirical claims (Psillos, 2002; Van Fraassen, 1980).

Although one would expect the Burkean scholar to welcome this move away from the extreme empiricism of the Positivists, the rationalist alternative of scientific realism poses its own problems to a symbolic study of rhetoric. For one, scientific realism proposes that language and other forms of symbolic interaction are a form of “mental toolkit”, which enables us to provide literal representations of reality while Burkean models, as well as most schools of the rhetoric of science, necessitate that we view our symbolic models not as literal but as figurative representations that can be interpreted as true. This is also a similarity that logical postivism has with the Burkean model of rhetoric as well as other interpretative models, although the similarities end there; logical postivism insists that the use of linguistic terms or statements, including the axioms of geometry and mathematics, are only valid to the extent that they correctly correspond to an empirically verified proof.

In an attempt at reconciliation between the positivist and realist schools, Van Fraassen (1980) has tried to return the philosophy of science to empiricism, while at the same time retaining those aspects which the scientific realists had done right, beginning a new conversation in the philosophy of science which has continued for some twenty-five years now. Van Fraassen’s notion of “constructive empiricism” hinges on a notion similar to that of scientific realism, that theories are sets of models and statements which serve as a useful description of physical reality when they are shown to “work” properly. However, according to Van Fraassen, a good theory need not necessarily be true, nor is truthfulness arbitrarily assigned when a theory is found to fulfill certain axiomatic propositions. Rather, the truthfulness of a theory is confirmed if and only if it is found to fulfill the tests of empirical adequacy, but it is not necessarily “inadequate” if it does not meet these tests. Moreover, Van Fraassen rejects the rules of linguistic determinacy which both logical positivism and scientific realism insist upon; instead, any form of symbolic representation, regardless of whether or not it meets propositional rules, may constitute a valid basis for a scientific model so long as it is stands as an accurate description (Van Fraassen, 1980). Here, we find ourselves edging closer to the Burkean conception of science, with a theory’s validity dependant on well it uses language to explain - or more accurately, persuade - the audience of its truthfulness.

What we are interested in here is less an attempt to draw analogies between Burke and contemporary philosophy of science than a desire to examine what is the relevance of this modern philosophy to a Burkean model for studying the rhetoric of science. It shall be demonstrated that Van Fraassen’s model of constructive empiricism is useful in explaining how the four master tropes described by Burke in A Grammar of Motives. To undertake this task, Tietge’s application the four master tropes to a study of scientific discourse shall be used as the theoretical basis for a synthesis of Burke and Van Fraassen.

The Four Master Tropes and The Philosophy of Science: A Dialogue

We begin by examining Tietge’s description of how Burke’s four master tropes correspond to scientific practice. According to Tietge, the general statements Burke makes about science as an extension of the human symbol-making capacity in the Grammar of Motives necessarily lends itself to a discussion of how we relate the role of the four master tropes in communicating knowledge and meaning in scientific discourse. Accordingly, the key rhetorical features of scientific expression have their corresponding equivalents in Burke’s tropes. “Reduction”, the representation of features and phenomena in mathematical form, has its counterpart in the trope of metonymy. “Perspective” has its counterpart in the trope of metaphor, as it involves the attribution of features to an object of phenomenon which it actually does not have, but is useful in providing a simplified understanding (as when physicists describe quarks as having “color”: naturally, it is impossible for them to actually have colors as we know them but the metaphor has proved highly useful in explaining how the particles interact). “Synecdoche’s” counterpart is found in the use of representation of science, the inductive use of specific examples to establish universal principles; “dialectic” has its counterpart in irony, using examples to describe how outcomes differ from predictions or expectations (Tietge, 1998).

In using Burke’s four master tropes as a means of explaining and situating scientific practice, Tietge arrives at conclusions which parallel those which Van Fraassen derived from his notion of constructive empiricism. Both Van Fraassen and Tietge describe their individual interpretations as moves away from scientific realism, although the definitions of ‘scientific realism’ used by both scholars differ slightly and should be clarified before proceeding further. The scientific realism Van Fraassen is responding to specifically maintains that scientific theories, while capable of being either true or false, are to be considered literally true when their predictive value in explaining the world existing outside the mind has been validated and is also a rationalist response to the extreme empiricism of the logical positivists who focused on the use of observed evidence and argumentative structures in theory (Van Fraassen 1980). Van Fraassen is similarly critical of logical postivism but also maintains that weaknesses exist in the precepts of scientific realism, which must be further examined as well if we are to come up with an accurate model of how science proceeds.

On the other hand, the philosophy of scientific realism which Burke described and responded to, in a conversation continued by Tietge, encompasses the key assumptions of the philosophies of both scientific realism and positivism. The Burkean reply to scientific realism, that theories and observations are as much functions of symbolic action as other forms of rhetoric are, is further extended by Tietge to describe science as an ordering of observations and predictions through the use of language in an understandable manner (Burke, 1945, Tietge, 1998). As such, scientific theories are not literal descriptions or interpretations of objective reality as scientific realism insists, nor are they mere linguistic or social constructs as some of the more extreme constructivists would have us believe. They are, instead, an attempt to place in order our observations and interpretations in a manner which is clear, coherent, and understandable to their audiences, be them other scientists or the lay audience as a whole. If they fall short of a complete or accurate description of external reality it is less a failing of the theories themselves than of the very nature of language itself, subject as it is to ambiguity and imprecision, to say nothing of individual preference and competence in the selection of tropes (Tietge 1998).

It is at this point that we are able to proceed to a synthesis of Burke’s four master tropes with Van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism. Van Fraassen opposes logical positivism on the basis that a theory’s validity need not hinge on observables, be they direct observations of phenomena or observations of their effects. In turn, he also opposes realism on epistemological grounds, arguing that claims about what is and is not observable are not to be accepted as literal representations of reality but as linguistic constructs. Theories and models are as much “inventions” as they are explanations and may be defined and defended through any conceivable application of language (Van Fraassen, 1980). This is in part the same approach to science which Heath identifies in Burke’s approach: viewing theories as perspectives on reality instead of representations of reality itself and holding that language is as real as the theories it defines (Heath, 1986).

There is, however, one area where Burke and Van Fraassen are very much at odds and it is at this point that the four master tropes come into play. Van Fraassen holds that scientific theories and models are still primarily mental constructions and, as such, can be defined through any language by any means or manner we choose. We need not even define models in terms of any form of regimented or formal language, and can merely consider them to be abstract objects so long as some form of linguistic representation is utilized. Although a theory may not necessarily be literally true or empirically verifiable in order to be valid, a theory which both satisfies the given axioms and is empirically verifiable may be viewed as literally true (Van Fraassen, 1980).

For the Burkean scholar, however, “any old language” simply won’t do, nor can the theories and models be conceived or interpreted without the use of some systematic application of language and symbols. The Burkean perspective also encounters friction with the notion of constructive empiricism in that it denies that we can satisfactorily maintain that any theory may be viewed as literally true given that the limitations of language necessarily mean that we cannot provide a full description (Heath, 1986). Here is where the four tropes become useful: we may use them to more precisely define the use of language in the construction of scientific theories and models. This has a precedent in Schiappa’s (1993) synthesis of Burke with Kuhn’s philosophy of science, where it was demonstrated that the linguistic tropes were consistent with the epistemological pragmatism in scientific theories put forth by Kuhn. As noted by Schiappa, Burke provides the sort of social philosophy of language which Kuhn viewed as necessary for the advancement of the philosophy of science. This, according to Schiappa, leads to a pragmatic approach in which paradigms are selected on the basis of their utility and language becomes the basis of shared claims and concepts through which said paradigms are both developed and selected. The following will attempt to do for scientific realism and constructive empiricism what Schiappa did for Kuhn: demonstrate that Burke’s approach to rhetoric, embodied in the notion of the four tropes, provides a vehicle for linguistic analysis in Van Fraassen’s philosophy of science. The key difference is that whereas Schiappa argues that that combining Burke and Kuhn leads to a social constructionist viewpoint, the synthesis of Burke with Van Fraassen leads to an approach where hypotheses and models are more appropriately regarded as mental constructs with social interactions nonetheless playing an important role in the evolution and maturity as theories.

The Four Master Tropes and Constructive Empiricism: A Synthesis

Using examples found in Van Fraassen’s text as well as those who have responded to him in the unending conversation of the philosophy of science, we can demonstrate how the four master tropes become the source of description in the empirical construction of scientific theories. The first of these tropes we shall try to use in this manner is metonymy, and as this corresponds the most closely to the quantitative models and representations used in the sciences, it is probably the most important of the four tropes in this regard. Theories and models themselves, when viewed according to constructive empiricism, become a form of metonymy, as they serve as a reduction of observable phenomena to a statement which can be adequately be expressed linguistically. Whereas the other tropes rely on the imprecise definitions of formal language, the use of mathematics to provide for a metonymic reduction of objects allows for a more accurate model, although not a perfect one. Giere (1985) has responded negatively to both Van Fraassen and the more hardcore realists’ claims of isomorphic closure in scientific modeling; that is to say, the notion that any quantitative model which satisfies the required axioms may be regarded as a complete and accurate representation of object or phenomenon. The notion of “constructive realism” put forth by Giere argues against this claim in a manner similar to Heath’s interpretation of Burke (1986), although arrived at independently. According to Giere, the precise geometric models used by Van Fraassen are not valid analogies to scientific theories, as no quantitative model can ever provide an exact and complete representation of an actual object. Although Tietge maintains that metonymy is somehow separate from the other tropes in its use of a more precise language in the invention of theories and models, when we take Giere’s arguments into account we find that it too is subject to the same linguistic limitations which restrict the other tropes. Metonymy is still a trope apart, however, in the sense that it is used a form of persuasion almost exclusively within the rhetorical community of scientists where it occurs, and it also serves as the “root trope” from which the use of metaphor, dialectic, and synecdoche all spring forth. Whenever any one of the other three tropes is used in constructive empiricism, it is as usually as a means of either re-interpreting a metonymic model or to supplement it (Tietge, 1998).

Giere further argues that instead of relying on certitudes, a model’s validity can be evaluated on the basis of how similar it is to an actual object and on certain specified degrees of realism. Accordingly, just about any form of representation which meets the tests of empirical adequacy maybe considered valid. Here, we have the basis for an understanding of the use of synecdoche in the use of models which serve as the representations of nature which a theory aims to describe. Since we cannot ever have a complete representation of reality, we rely on synecdochal models which derive general principles from representations of specific objects. The validity of the use of synecdoche in a particular model is therefore dependant on the tests of empirical adequacy such as those insisted upon by Giere or Van Fraassen. Moreover, since theories in scientific realism are viewed as endpoints instead of reductions, they rely largely upon a linguistic approach; thus, theories serve as linguistic representations of physical reality and models, in turn, serve as representations of theories. If metonymy is the trope which corresponds to the understanding of theory in constructive empiricism, then synecdoche corresponds in parallel to theory in scientific realism.

Trying to locate the role of metaphor and especially irony in either scientific realism or constructive empiricism proves to be rather more problematic. As Burke himself noted in A Grammar of Motives, these tropes tend to shade into one another in a manner which makes them hard to define; this, added to the fact that contemporary philosophy of science has still only made a tentative investigation of the roles of metaphor and irony in science, means that the status of these two tropes in probing the validity of scientific theories and models remains up in the air. Both Tietge and Schiappa, however, have attempted to demonstrate how the Burkean definitions of metaphor and irony have a role in scientific understanding. In trying to explain the use of both metaphor and irony in scientific discourse, Tietge uses the examples of Charles Darwin’s (1959, cited in Tietge, 1998) use of the term “community of descent” to both provide an understanding of the deeper implications of natural selection through the use of metaphor, as well as an example of irony in the way that it inverts an accurate interpretation of what the theory of evolution truly means. Metaphors such as “community of descent” and “natural selection,” as noted by Tietge, have a certain degree of cognitive power as they serve as a means by which representations of nature can be done so linguistically in a manner which is not necessarily exact but which is sufficiently pragmatic to provide a reasonable conceptualization of a working model.

It has been further noted by Giere (1999) that we cannot establish perfect analogical models in a theory because the similarities can never be fully exact and therefore definitions of the individual objects can never be fully precise. Metaphor especially embodies this double-edged usefulness of analogy in science; but just as metaphors are essential to conceptual understanding in language, so too are models essential to the foundations of scientific theories. As noted by Psillos (2002), scientific realism views model construction in science as being guided by an analogical approach based upon substantial similarities which are either formal (derived from mathematical descriptions of a system) or material (descriptions of purely physical properties), and can then be tested against the phenomena they intend to describe. Although models are on one level synecdochal in the perspective of scientific realism just as they are in constructive empiricism, given that they are representations of larger structures which eventually lead to the development of mature theories, their dependence on analogies based on substantial similarities makes them metaphoric as well.

As for irony, it is perhaps best reinterpreted as a form of dialectic, which is also how it was interpreted by Schiappa (1993). Although a dialectic interpretation fits well with the Kuhnian view of science as a series of competing paradigm shifts, it is less comfortable with either scientific realism or constructive empiricism, both of which conform with the traditional view of science as eventually moving towards an accurate vision of physical reality differing primarily in how that vision is represented mentally and linguistically. Irony is then perhaps best defined, in the context of both scientific realism and constructive empiricism, in terms of models being adequate, but not exact, representations, so that the observed outcomes are not always as expected. Needless to say, irony is more suited to constructive empiricism and other pragmatic theories than to scientific realism, where, as Psillos maintains, “belief in truth is better” (1999, p. 204). The history of science is replete with examples of irony where the outcomes of observables did not match those of predictions, the most famous being perhaps the null effect of the Michelson-Morley experiment and the nonexistence of the hypothetical planet Vulcan, the puzzling outcomes of both of which were later resolved by, respectively, Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity. In constructive empiricism, an ironic outcome does not necessarily constitute a failure of a theory if it continues to meet certain other tests for empirical adequacy. Both Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory and Newton’s gravitational theory continued to meet those tests and continue to be considered adequate even though they have been supplemented by new theories necessitated by new knowledge borne by new observations.


Hopefully, the reader has brought back from the preceding article two key impressions. The first of these is that Kenneth Burke’s four master tropes have a renewed importance in social and rhetorical studies of science given the emphasis on language and symbolic systems that preoccupies much contemporary philosophy of science. The second impression is that there is room for a dialogue between both the rhetoricians and philosophers of science that will allow both sets of scholars to work towards a greater understanding of how scientific theories are developed. If this dialogue is to be successful, however, both sets of scholars must try to go beyond the tropes to other discourse rules and structures which are used in science, as well extending the scope of their investigations beyond the hard sciences of physics and biology typically used as subjects, to encompass theories in sociology, economics and psychology as well.

In addition to asking what rhetorical theory can provide to the philosophy of science, we should also be asking ourselves what the philosophy of science can provide for rhetoric. The preceding paper provided only one side of a conversation; I happily invite the other side to join in.

*Andrew Kidd is at the Department of Communication Studies at University of Minnesota. He can be reached at kidd0039@umn.edu.
The author wishes to thank Arthur Walzer of the University of Minnesota for his assistance with an earlier draft of this paper.

Works Cited
Brock, B. L. (1995). Evolution of Kenneth Burke’s criticism and philosophy of language. In B.L. Brock (ed.) Kenneth Burke and contemporary European thought, (pp. 1-33). Tuscaloosa AL: University of Alabama Press.

Burke, K (1945). A grammar of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Giere, R. N. (1985). Constructive realism. In P. M. Churchland and C. A. Hooker (Eds.) Images of science: Essays on realism and empiricism, (pp.75-98). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Giere, R.N. (1999). Using models to represent reality. In L. Magnani, N.J. Nersessian, and P. Thagard (Eds.) Model-reasoning in scientific discovery, (pp.41-57). New York: Klewer/Plenum.

Heath, R. L. (1986). Realism and relativism: A perspective on Kenneth Burke. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press

Psillos, S. (2002). Scientific realism: How science tracks the truth. London and New York: Routledge.

Schiappa, E. (1993) . Burkean tropes and Kuhnian science: A social constructionist perspective on language and reality. Journal of Advanced Composition 13, 401-22.

Tietge, D. (1998) The role of Burke’s four master tropes in scientific representation. Journal of Technical and Writing Communication 28, 317-324

Van Fraassen, B.C. (1980). The Scientific Image. Oxford UK: Clarendon Press, a division of Oxford University Press.

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"Kenneth Burke and Contemporary Philosophy of Science” by Andrew Kidd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.


Positive Identification through Being the ‘Occasional Asshole’: A Burkeian Analysis of “Dear John,” by Poet Tony Hoagland

Rosemary Royston, Young Harris College


This paper gives a brief overview of the redemption drama as found in the work of rhetorician Kenneth Burke and applies this drama to the poem “Dear John” by Tony Hoagland. The poem is examined through the Burkeian lens, with special attention to the elements of the redemption drama, while also highlighting the use of humor as an effective rhetorical strategy.

RECALL A TIME WHEN someone said something inappropriate – how the moment was uncomfortable, yet, upon the apology from the offender and the forgiveness of the offended, everyone is suddenly at ease. A moment such as this is exactly what contemporary poet Tony Hoagland describes in his poem “Dear John.” In fact, when examining “Dear John” through a Burkeian lens, it is easy to identify Burke’s redemption drama. In the text, Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres, Karyn and Donald Rybacki describe the redemption drama as a social drama that involves the elements of guilt, purification, and redemption (72). Yet for this drama to be effective, the main concept of Burkeian rhetoric, identification, must be present. Burke saw society as a collection of various hierarchies, with individuals and groups engaging in ongoing struggles (Rybacki 71). Because there are a number of hierarchies (political, social, economic) an individual is unable to satisfy all the rules imposed on him. In his text, The Rhetoric of Religion, Burke outlines the redemption drama in short verse, where order represents the many expectations or “commandments” found in society:

Here are the steps
In the Iron Law of History
That welds Order and Sacrifice:

Order leads to Guilt
(for who can keep commandments!)
Guilt needs Redemption
(for those who would not be cleansed!)
Redemption needs Redeemer
(which is to say, a Victim!).

Through Guilt
To Victimage
(hence Cult of the Kill)… (4-5).

To summarize, in no way can an individual satisfy all of the expectations of the many hierarchies with which he is engaged When the individual fails to keep “order,” he feels guilty. He then needs to redeem himself for his failing and either be the victim or name a victim for the shortcoming. In the end, redemption is needed to alleviate the sin or shortcoming.

However, for this social drama to work, the reader or listener must identify with the rhetor, which in this case is a poet. Without identification between the two, then, the redemption drama will fail as the reader must experience the guilt (even if vicariously) and witness both the redemption and the purification of the speaker. In his work, The Rhetoric of Redemption, Bobbit posits a key question in regard to the redemption drama, “How does the rhetor take the listener from guilt to redemption…how does he or she achieve symbolic purification for the audience?” (41). This paper will examine how the poet does just that, allowing the reader to vicariously experience not only the poet’s faux pas but also his purification and ultimate redemption. As this social drama is enacted, one will also see how Hoagland utilizes many rhetorical strategies in his poem, such as narration, description, and justification. But inevitably it is his use of humor which allows the reader to enter and exit a social drama with an unexpected amount of ease.

All humans yearn for acceptance. We all wish to be a part of a group where shared beliefs, interests, or values exist. And within the first stanza of “Dear John,” the poet describes his desire to be liked as he attempts to make friends with someone to whom he has just been introduced. However, his attempt at bonding fails miserably, as he writes, “I never would have told John that faggot joke / if I had known that he was gay” (1-2). Immediately the reader is thrown into a social drama. The poet admits to cracking a bad joke and instead of welcoming his potential new friend he has likely offended him. The poet continues, “I really shot myself in the foot with that Neanderthal effort / to make a witty first impression” (3-4). Within these four opening lines, the reader has had two opportunities to identify with the poet. First, all readers can identify with the wish to be liked. Secondly, readers (if honest) can also remember a time when they, too, said something inappropriate and offended someone. Yet a glimpse of the character of the poet is revealed as he admits to his “… Neanderthal effort / to make a witty impression” (3-4). Instead of being defensive or making a quick exit after his faux-pas, the reader understands that the poet feels guilty and the next stage of the drama begins: purification.

Purification is evident as the poet justifies the impetus for his off-color joke. The poet simply wants John, the “skinny guy from New York City,” who has just arrived in Vermont and is “nervous about how real the maples really were” to feel comfortable (5, 9-10). After all, the only Vermont John is familiar with is the one “…from the pictures on the side / of a gallon can of Log Cabin maple syrup” (7-8). Hoagland continues, “so I made my tasteless remark to put him at his ease” (11). The reader now has further insight into the character of the poet – he is the type of person who admits to a mistake and whose basic motivation was to make a new person feel comfortable.

Hoagland’s strategy for keeping the reader engaged in the scene has been not only to describe the situation and to justify his acts, but also to use humor as a rhetorical strategy. His humor is directed not only at the outside drama, but also at himself in the form of self-deprecation. In fact, he finds a type of freedom in being a self-acknowledged jerk, as he writes,

there’s something democratic
about being the occasional asshole—
you make a mistake, you apologize
and everyone else breathes easier—(16-19).

The elements of the redemption drama are now all evident: guilt in being the “asshole,” purification through explanation of motive, and redemption as “everyone else breathes easier” (19). Because the poet recognizes his “male idiocy,” apologizes, and is forgiven, he and John become friends (12). The friendship is the ultimate form of redemption as it affirms that the poet has been forgiven. The poet describes how John helps him “…through the whole lesbian thing / when Margie decided to take her feminism in a recreational direction” (20-22). In turn, the poet buys John “…a recording / of simulated gunfire and police sirens” to help him sleep through the quiet Vermont nights (22-23).


In fact, not only does the poet become friends with John by the end of the poem, he has come to love him,

---not for his cuteness (he is)
or for his endearing manner of being always on the brink
of falling apart,
but precisely because he doesn’t ever threaten to love me back (30-33).

At this point in the poem, a shift occurs. The Burkeian social drama has taken a twist, moving away from a generalized outside audience to a much more internal and personal one. The poet continues in the confessional mode,

On someone like that you can lavish your affection
in perfect safety—
that’s nothing to be proud of, I suppose—
and yet, obscurely, I am (34-37).

In short, the poet feels safe in “lavishing his affection” on John simply because John never “threaten[s] to love [him] back” (33-34). This personal observation tells the reader much about the poet’s persona and his view on love. Clearly, the poet is more comfortable loving someone who does not threaten to return the adoration. And while the generalized outside audience has somewhat disappeared, an opportunity for readers to identify with the poet remains. However, any identification occurring will be on a subjective level. Not all people are fulfilled by unreciprocated love. Yet some readers will find this personal revelation similar to their own life situation and will identify. In his ending, the poet has veered away from speaking solely to an outside audience and turned to an interior view – it is as if he is having a conversation with himself to which the reader is privy.

To return to the initial question posed by Bobbit, the rhetor, or poet, has taken the listener from guilt to redemption by becoming the sacrificial lamb at his own hand. Because of the multiple opportunities for consubstantiation or identification, the reader experiences the poet’s guilt, purification, and redemption. Even though the poet takes on the role of the “occasional asshole,” the reader vicariously experiences every crucial element of this social drama. By sacrificing himself through admission of guilt and self-deprecating humor, the poet pays for his sin and is redeemed through the reciprocal friendship. Ironically, it is the freedom experienced from being an “asshole” that enables the redemption drama to operate on both a universal level and a personal level, and it is the rhetorical strategy of humor that allows the reader to have a few chuckles along the way, moving in and out of this social drama with ease.

* Rosemary Royston is a poet with a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University. She currently works as the Vice President for Planning and Assessment at Young Harris College. She can be reached at rainbow_28rr@yahoo.com.


Works Cited


Bobbit, David. The Rhetoric of Redemption. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,

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

Hoagland, Tony. “Dear John,” What Narcissism Means to Me. Minnesota: Graywolf Press,

Rybacki, Karyn, and Donald Rybacki. Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres.
California: Wadsworth, 1991.

"Positive Identification through Being the ‘Occasional Asshole’: A Burkeian Analysis of “Dear John,” by Poet Tony Hoagland"; by Rosemary Royston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.



Ceci N’est Pas Une Guerre: The Misuse of War as Metaphor in Iraq

Ted Remington, University of Saint Francis


On the occasion of the end of the official “combat mission” in Iraq, it is worth examining the role rhetoric played in what some have termed one of the longest wars in U.S. history. But that raises the question.  Was what happened in Iraq, at least after the initial invasion in 2003, a “war?”  Everyone from the most hawkish of hawks to the most peaceful of doves chose war as the term with which to refer to the United States’ involvement in that country.  But was this term literal or metaphoric?  If the former, was it accurate? If the latter, what were the rhetorical (and political, social, and global) consequences of its use?

I use this question as a starting point for a meditation on the larger theme of the rhetorical role of metaphor as described by Kenneth Burke.  Given Burke’s admonishment to beware the dangers of understanding the symbolic literally, I suggest taking a closer look at the distinction between metaphor and simile, not simply as literary tropes, but as conceptual tools for ordering the world.  I particularly look at the Burkean triad of the Order, Secret, and Kill (in Rhetoric of Motives) to understand what’s at stake in our symbolic choices.The metaphor/simile distinction allows us to more fully understand the role of the symbolic in Burke’s ultimate goal: the purification of war.  Understanding the rhetorical and philosophical consequences of the metaphor/simile distinction gives us a tool to move toward (but, of course, never fully arriving at) transcendence.

Returning to the specific case study of Iraq, I close by hypothesizing how using the term war was a rhetorical choice that blocked the way to peace.  Even those who most opposed U.S. policy in Iraq rhetorically empowered the rationale for never-ending conflict when they referred to their position as “anti-war.”  A keener understanding of the role of the symbolic in structuring our motives, as provided by Burke, coupled with an appreciation for the distinction between simile and metaphor (something even Burke spends little time discussing) provides us one way of moving toward a better life.

ALL METAPHORS ARE FALSE, all similes are true.  We rarely note this fact, given its obviousness.  Metaphors say two different things are the same, while similes say two things resemble each other.  No matter how alike two things are, they are never identical, and no matter how different they are, there are always qualities they share (even if that quality is something as vague as “existence.”).   To say, “Juliet is the sun” is to lie—Juliet and the sun are not one in the same.  But saying “Juliet is like the sun” states something demonstrably true. Regardless of the radiance of her beauty, Juliet and the sun share qualities in common, even if that quality is simply their existence in Romeo’s world.

At first blush, this seems like mere wordplay. But of the many lessons Kenneth Burke teaches us, one of the most central is this: pay attention to tropes and their use.  In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke warns of the dangers of confusing the literal and the symbolic. I would add that ignorance of how different figures of speech operate make this confusion much more likely.  This is particularly true in the case of metaphor, which is, on the surface, a claim that could be taken literally.  It does not call attention to its own figurativeness the way simile does.  Burke defines metaphor as the trope that allows us perspective—itself a metaphor that implies distance.  But what if a metaphor actually collapses that distance?  What happens to the perspective then?  And what are the consequences?

I suggest that the consequences can be grave indeed, particularly when the metaphors lead us to the deadly cooperation Burke most wanted to save us from: war.  In this essay, I suggest that the word “war” itself has become an uneasy and unstable metaphor, not offering perspective, but creating a deadly myopia.  Specifically, the word “war” in relation to United States involvement in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, while often used as a factually accurate term, was not appropriate on a literal level.  It must be metaphorical, then.  But its metaphorical aspect, while crucial to its power as a rhetorical term, went unnoted.  The president, the press, protesters . . . all invoked “war” when referring to the conflict in Iraq.  Yet the consequences of this trope remain unacknowledged.  Most problematically, the insistence on using the term “war” brought about the deaths of tens of thousands of human beings by making U.S. disengagement from Iraq problematic, thus drawing out the occupation and its attendant violence for the better part of a decade.

This essay aims to acknowledge the consequences and suggest a Burkean antidote.  I make a number of specific assertions:

  • the situation in Iraq did not meet the literal definition of “war” after 2003
  • the continuing use of “war” to describe the situation in Iraq was a figurative use of the term, one loaded with rhetorical weight
  • the unproblematic use of the term by virtually all parties shows us the power of war as a representative anecdote (as Burke describes in A Grammar of Motives)
  • the metaphor of war holds a powerful allure, even for those who oppose U.S. policies in Iraq

My hope is that this examination of a specific case of the power of tropes to shape our collective lives together can shed some light on our journey toward a better life.  In this effort, I pull broadly and freely from Burke’s work rather than working through a single specific concept.  When using ideas of some critics, this might be unseemly liberty-taking.  I hope and trust, however, that I am working within the spirit of Burke’s ideas and his own idea of the critical enterprise.  I take as my guide Burke’s own words from A Rhetoric of Motives:

So we must keep trying anything and everything, improvising, borrowing from others, developing from others, dialectically using one text as comment upon another, schematizing; using the incentive to new wandering, returning from these excursions to schematize again, being oversubtle where the straining seems to promise some further glimpse, and making amends by reduction to very simple anecdotes.  (265)

“War” As a Metaphor We Live (and Die) By

Within hours of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the word “war” became the dominant term to describe the situation facing the United States (Montgomery).  This became explicit with the coining of the phrase “war on terror.”  Any number of commentators have noted the problem of waging “war” on a concept, and it would be hard to argue that this use of the word “war” is not in large sense metaphoric, as it is in the phrases “war on poverty” and “war on drugs” (John, Domke, Coe, and Graham; Smith; Goodall; Ivie; Stahl).

But the invasions of Afghanistan and later Iraq made the metaphor real.  Although war was not declared in either case, the events in both countries surely fit the general definition of the word—an ongoing military conflict between two nation states.  But by this definition, the “wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq ended after a matter of weeks.  This is particularly true in the case of Iraq, where the opposing army was disbanded, the leader of one of the nations involved was forced into hiding (and eventually captured), and the armed forces of the other nation occupying its adversary. 

Yet, despite the surrender of the opposing army, the word “war” continued to be used to refer to the situation in Iraq. At first glance, this seems fair.  After all, armed conflict continued, with far more U.S. service members (as well as Iraqis) killed after the fall of Saddam Hussein than were killed during the invasion.

Still, the situation did not fit the definition of “war.”  There was not one conflict between two nations, but a series of conflicts among a wide variety of entities with shifting alliances.  There was no capturing of territory or even pitched battles.  Rather, Iraq suffered through sporadic, spasmodic fits of violence among any number of groups, including the United States military.  It is a bloody and chaotic occupation of a defeated country, not a war.

Despite this, the word “war” continued to be used to describe Iraq, not only by the Bush administration, but by journalists and those opposed to the administration’s policy.  So, we find not only Bush referring to himself as a “war” president, but also reporters discussing legislation on funding “the war in Iraq” and groups protesting U.S. involvement in Iraq printing bumper stickers saying “End this endless war.”

Why War?

Why would “war” be the chosen metaphor for Iraq?  Burke would have a ready answer to this question.  As he writes in A Grammar of Motives, war offers a powerful and comprehensive representative anecdote not simply for armed conflict, but for conflict (and hence the human condition as a whole).  If one is looking for a means of drawing a collective together for action (as was the case with Bush and his policy in Iraq), war is a perfect vehicle since, as Burke notes, “war draws things to a head as thoroughly as a suppurating abscess, and is usually, like revolution, the dramatic moment of explosion after an infinity of minute preparatory charges” (Burke, Grammar of Motives 329).1

This explains the lure of war as metaphor for Bush, but what about the media?  Why the unquestioning use of the word “war” despite the clear problems with using it literally?  One might suggest that the singular power of a political leader such as Bush to frame the issue in terms of his choosing makes the press’s acceptance of the term inevitable.  But plenty of examples exist of the media not simply accepting a president’s favored terminology.  So, where does the media’s motivation lie2

Again, Burke offers an answer.  Noting that the press in a capitalist democracy largely gives itself over to propagandizing for private business, Burke suggests that the press serves its master by celebrating the destructive component of the military (part of the public sector).  This contrasts with its dialectical opposite, the constructivist private sector.  Collective sacrifice is fetishized only when it is in the service of “booty” (Burke’s term).  Burke, who suggested this in looking back at the actions of the press leading up to and through World War II, would likely point out the extent to which the benefits of the invasion and occupation of Iraq landed in the laps of private industry.  At the same time, true collective sacrifice for the greater good (e.g., higher taxes to pay for the invasion) has not only been ignored, but actively discouraged, as in Bush’s exhortation for consumers to spend more money at the mall as a response to the terrorist attacks.

To the extent that militaristic adventuring serves private gains, and the press serves as a propagandistic tool of private industry, it should not surprise us that our media continued to label the occupation of Iraq as an ongoing “war.”  This was not in deference to the Bush administration as much as it was to corporate forces, which were the ones to collect the booty.  In fact, the situation in Iraq served as an almost comic exaggeration of the motives Burke describes.  Writing half a century ago, Burke says: “I have never heard it said that we should let out our wars to private contractors, so far as the recruiting of a fighting force itself is concerned” (Grammar 395).  With the advent of Blackwater, KBR, and a host of other private “contractors,” the corporate/military synergy described by Burke reached an extent in Iraq that even he might have had trouble believing.

Finally, we have the use of “war” by those who specifically opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and oppose the continued occupation.  Even Barack Obama, as both candidate and as president, continued to invoke the term “war” for the situation in Iraq, despite his opposition to the initial invasion. If “war” is the metaphor of choice largely because it serves the purposes of those who profit from U.S. policy in Iraq, why should those who opposed this policy also embrace "war"?3

Again, Burke’s discussion of war-as-anecdote sheds light on the question.   War, he notes, need not be used only as a constitutive anecdote (saying what we are), but as an admonitory one (one that warns us of what we may become) (Grammar 330). That is, “war” can be used as a means of insisting on the necessity of peace.  Those who implored us to “end this endless war” used “war” because of the power of the word to stand for all that we fear.  Calling for an end to the “war” frames a policy debate in nearly metaphysical terms, asking us to turn away from the most hideous and cruel aspect of ourselves and toward the better angels of our nature.

This goes some way in explaining the acceptance of the “war” trope by Barack Obama.  Although opposed to the initial invasion and promising to bring the troops in Iraq home, candidate Obama repeatedly referred to the situation in Iraq as a “war.”  After becoming president, Obama continued to use the term in discussing Iraq, despite his efforts to bring U.S. troops home as promised during the campaign.  It might make sense for Obama to abandon the “war” metaphor precisely because that would allow him to undercut the rationale the continued presence of the military in Iraq and make ending the occupation of Iraq less rhetorically tricky.  So why did he continue to invoke “war?”

Part of this might be explained by the fact that the situation in Iraq had already been rhetorically framed as a “war,” and to not use this trope might make Obama seem out of touch with the “reality” of the situation, as popularly understood.  On a deeper level, however, Obama may well have been using “war” for the same reasons critics of the Bush policy did: it served to dramatize the situation.  By ending the “combat mission” in Iraq, Obama could claim to have ended the “war” in Iraq, an achievement that looks much better on a presidential resumé than ending an “occupation.”  Such framing portrays Obama as triumphing over “war,” the ultimate evil, by putting an end to it.

Yet Burke warns that there are limits to the power of “war” to serve the function of the ultimate “thou-shalt-not”, noting:

It may be doubted whether a purely admonitory idiom can serve even the deterrent role for which it is designed; for it creates nothing but the image of the enemy, and if men are to make themselves over in the image of imagery, what other call but that of the enemy is there for them to answer?  (Grammar 331).

Burke’s rhetorical question takes on even more weight given that one of Obama’s leading reasons for drawing down combat forces in Iraq was to aid in persecuting the United States’ other “war” in Afghanistan.

Burke’s discussion of war as a representative anecdote takes place in context of a search for an overarching constitutive anecdote for the human condition.  One can raise the objection that to apply this to the much more tactical situation of the rhetoric of the Iraq conflict is to conflate two very different issues.  I agree.   Burke’s discussion of the lure of war as a lens through which we can understand human nature does suggest some answers to the question of why “war” would become the metaphor of choice for the Iraq.  However, I do not suggest that Bush, the media, or those opposed to U.S. policy in Iraq proposed war as an overarching representative anecdote for humanity.

To apply this observation to the specific and narrow case of the rhetoric of the Iraq conflict, I use another Burkean concept, the terministic screen.  (It strikes me that when Burke talks about a “representative anecdote,” he is talking about the equivalent of a terministic screen writ large.). The adoption of “war” as the controlling metaphor for American involvement in Iraq colored our understanding of it in particular ways, ways that are not in the control of those who use the word.  

In Attitudes Toward History, Burke notes that “[e]ven if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” [Burke’s emphasis] (Burke, Attitudes Toward History 45).  A terministic screen “necessarily directs the attention into some channels rather than others” (45).  If, for varied reasons, “war” has been chosen as the terministic screen through which we view Iraq, we should look at what it draws our attention to and what it deflects. 

“War” suggests at least three specific qualities of the conflict in Iraq.  First, it views the United States engaging a singular, monolithic “Enemy” that must be defeated.  Wars are fought against someone.  Second, it lets us see only two possible outcomes: victory or defeat (surrender). In war, one side wins, the other loses.  Lastly, it portrays the conflict in Iraq as a defense of the United States itself.  Wars are fought to defend one’s own way of life.  Even wars of aggression are sold to the citizens who fight them as the only way to defend their own homes, families, and livelihoods. 

What is deflected?  The complex, chaotic nature of the multiple conflicts and shifting alliances in Iraq, where even those collectively labeled “insurgents” are often battling each other, and today’s “warlord” is tomorrow’s valued “tribal leader.”  So is the possibility of negotiation.  In war, peaceful settlement happens after one side conquers the other.  Withdrawal of troops equals surrender.  Finally, the terministic screen of war obscured the nature of U.S. interests in Iraq, which are primarily economic and geo-political “booty,” not the immediate safety of Americans.

The collective mythic understanding of war in America amplifies these distortions.  World War II remains the archetypal war in America’s collective consciousness, a “good” war where “citizen soldiers” “liberated” oppressed people terrorized by an undeniably evil enemy.  We see the potency of this when we reflect on Bush’s rhetorical linkage of Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler before the invasion.  When the United States fights a war (says the myth), it is a good war against an evil enemy, and victory is the only acceptable, indeed the only possible, result.

One might think that the specter of Vietnam would act as a corrective to this triumphalism, but in fact, it simply shows the dangers of not seeing a war through to victory.  To give up a war (rarely is the word “lose” used, even in reference to Vietnam) invites dishonor and raises the dangers of falling into a “syndrome.” 

To sum up: “war” was the dominant term used in the public sphere to describe U.S. involvement in Iraq.  This is despite the fact that the literal meaning of the word bore little resemblance to the situation on the ground after 2003.  Its use was a rhetorical choice made by a variety of voices for a variety of reasons, all of which were tied to war’s natural appeal as a representative anecdote for human action. The term “war” was a figure—a metaphor—which created a terministic screen through which we viewed events in Iraq that necessarily drew our attention to certain aspects of the situation while obscuring and distorting others.   Most problematically, it placed possible topics of debate and policy decisions squarely “out of bounds.”

The Lure of War

In the previous section, we considered possible motivations for the use of the war metaphor in conjunction with Iraq.  We noted that those who supported the invasion and occupation, those reporting on it, and those opposed to it—including Obama—had particular reasons for using this term, despite the gap between its literal meaning and the situation on the ground.  In this section, I push this discussion further, speculating on deeper, more visceral motivations for the adoption of this metaphor by all parties.  While the previous section looked at different motivations among these three groups, I now move to looking at the lure of war as a metaphor in a way that is shared among all who use it, drawing together even those who see themselves as enemies.

Specifically, the term “war” serves as a seductive term of mystification, invoking deep-seated myths of human action at its highest and most dramatic levels.  This lure transcends the particular positions of those involved in the rhetorical give-and-take.  All involved, including those who label themselves “anti-war,” participate in the thrill that this invocation provides. “War” becomes what Burke describes as a “grounding” term that allows opposing factions to transcend differences.  It is the shared battlefield for those on opposing sides, and as such, it “transcends their factionalism, being ‘superior’ to it and ‘neutral’ to their motives, though the conditions of the terrain may happen to favor one faction” (Rhetoric of Motives, 11).  Yet, while this lure is equally powerful, the ramifications of adopting the war metaphor are not equal. I suggest that this metaphor serves the interests of those in favor of the continued occupation of Iraq. 

In his book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, former war correspondent Chris Hedges describes how war holds a perverse attraction for us at both individual and communal levels.  He states that

[t]he enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life.  I can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.  Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent.” (Hedges, 3).
[t]he enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. I can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent.” (Hedges, 3).  

Hedges speaks candidly of how, despite coming face to face with war’s horrors and suffering tremendously as a result, he personally found himself addicted to the visceral thrill of participating in war, even as a neutral observer, to the point of being willing to risk death, if only it would allow him to live for another moment in this heightened state of human drama and avoid being taken back to the humdrum routine of a life of peaceful ordinariness (5).

This heightened state of being, this sense of being involved in a cause that draws us to the most meaningful of actions, does not operate only on the level of the individual but on the level of the social as well.  For Hedges, this is most clear in the strength of patriotism’s grip on us during times of war.  Such is the power of nationalism that it can, at times, relieve us of our moral judgment and sense of individual autonomy.  War is the ultimate expression of this drive for collective action, of dissolving the self into the social.  While myths of nationalism are often invoked during peacetime for “benign” ends, they also “are the kindling nationalists use to light a conflict” (Hedges).

The myth of nationalism is the overarching lie that grounds and justifies the innumerable other lies that are told to justify and carry out war, including the most barbaric atrocities. It is also this myth that makes such lies believable.  Hedges cites examples of otherwise intelligent, educated people, from the former Yugoslavia to Argentina, willingly believing the most outlandish, risible claims because they were in the thrall of the nationalist myth. 

In both the description of the allure of war on the personal level and its collective seductiveness as the epitome of social action, Hedges (while not referencing Burke) describes processes akin to mystification.  Personal pain, uncertainty, and collective anxiety are numbed by the narcotic of war, a situation that replaces reality with a simplified vision of a world of black and white, right and wrong.   But more than assuaging the anxieties that are inherent in the scramble of life, war holds out the promise of personal and collective transformation through participation in human action at its most dramatic levels.  This is what Burke terms the “special” form of mystification that is used in overt deception (as opposed to the general sort he believes lurks in any mode of persuasion), that creates the “misunderstandings that goad to war” (Rhetoric of Motives, 179).  When such mystification involves issues of war and peace, they invoke “ultimate choices,” for “[m]en must make themselves over profoundly, when cooperatively engaged in following such inescapable purposes.  And as the acts of persuasion add up in a social texture, they amount to one or the other of those routes—and they are radical, no matter however trivial the errors by which war is permitted to emerge out of peace” (179). 

In understanding the fundamental allure of the metaphor of war that lays at the foundation of any particular invocation of it by various parties, we should note this promise of transformation.  Hedges notes the ability of war to provide an almost drug-like state of euphoria on a personal level.  But it would be a mistake, and underestimation of war’s power, to suggest that war holds out only illusory promises of transformation.  As William James notes in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” war calls for demonstrations of the highest of human values.  Militarism, James notes, “is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible” (James, 664).  War calls on universally acknowledged ideals of bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, ingenuity, tenacity and evokes them within the most extreme of situations, where individual and collective survival are placed in the balance.  Only pointing to the horrors of war will never do away with war, since “the horrors make the fascination” (661).  Only when we create a peaceful alternative, one that calls for peaceful purposes on those qualities fostered by war to facilitate killing and destruction, can we hope to do away with war’s gruesome allure.  

This discussion has suggested reasons why the invocation of “war” carries weight beyond the parochial interests of particular interest groups.  Its lures are manifold.  It soothes individual and collective frustrations that emerge in the give-and-take of life, and it calls on qualities that are, in and of themselves, laudable and even necessary for the health of a society.  Above all, as Burke, Hedges, and James all note, war holds out the promise of life lived at its most dramatic and intense limits.  It is presented to us as the human drama played out in the most visceral of ways, and this drama depends on the very things that make it abominable. 

But what does this do for us in terms of our specific topic, the use of war as a metaphor for the U.S. actions in Iraq beyond 2003?  Obviously, it gives us a better sense of what might motivate those inclined to favor these policies.  It even suggests reasons for why the media adopted this metaphor so readily.  Hedges’ personal experiences serve as a synecdoche for the allure war has for those who tell its story.  War is the ultimate story.  Even those who, unlike Hedges, are far from the actual slaughter and immune from the visceral thrill of life lived in extremis, partake in the vicarious thrill of telling the ultimate story.  And attendant with this are the lucrative rewards of serving up the ultimate story to audiences who, likewise, wish to partake in this communal action from a distance, if in no other way than bearing witness to it.

But what of those who opposed the invasion and occupation?  Why would they invoke the war metaphor?  I suggest it is because war provides, to use Burke’s terminology, a grounding term for transformation (Rhetoric of Motives, 10-11).  If war is, as Hedges suggests, a higher mode of being, then to oppose war itself becomes a higher mode of being.  “War” as a term provides a place of transcendence—a common ground that both sides accept.  I have argued that the acceptance of this particular common ground greatly favors those who supported the invasion and occupation, but one does not need to look very far to see why the allure of the war metaphor would blind activists on the other side to its perils. 

An anecdote might help illustrate this phenomenon.  As a college student during the first Gulf War in 1991, I saw many of my fellow students become fascinated with recreating an anti-war movement reminiscent of the Vietnam-era protests of the 1960s and 70s (which was part of their mythic past rather than remembered past, given that these students were just being born at the height of the antiwar movement).  Although there was no serious consideration of a draft, informational meetings were held about how to achieve conscientious objector status and the ramifications of signing up (or not) for selective service.  Protests were planned.   Fliers were put up. 

Certainly much of this activity was based on sincere and thoughtful disagreement with the specifics of the foreign policy decisions of the first Bush administration.  But even as a student myself, it was clear to see that there was another motivation—a craving to create anew the drama and passion that these students had read about from their parents’ generation.  The desire to transcend the humdrum existence of a student at a small college in the Midwest was powerful and understandable.  “War” carries a cachet as a modifier, whether it comes in the phrase “war president,” “war correspondent,” or “anti-war protestor.” 

In a Burkean sense, “war” as a term connotes drama, both personal and social, at its highest level.  To play with Burke’s metaphor of a “battleground” term, one could reframe this dramatistically: “war” provides all involved, regardless of their animosity toward one another, the grandest of stages.  That this stage is fit only for putting on the bloodiest of tragedies is lost on the participants.  Or, if not lost, it actually heightens the perverse attraction of the term (as Hedges and James say of war itself) as a scene for human drama. 

The particular danger for champions of peace in setting foot on this stage is that the invocation of war is powerful and activates deep seeded narratives.  Yes, war can be framed as the ultimate evil, as the perverse result of human cooperation at its blackest.  As such, it seems an inviting target.  Yet, to grant the figurative use of this term is a devil’s bargain—a Trojan horse that seems promising but brings defeat.  “War,” particularly in the context of American political rhetoric, conjures up images of victorious soldiers vanquishing a hated and evil enemy, of making the world safe for democracy.  Were we closer in time to the Civil War, or had we had the European experience of the world wars in the twentieth century, perhaps our collective vision of war would be more realistic.  But, despite involvement in Korea and Vietnam, our myth of war is still based largely on Greatest Generation triumphalism.  In that context, it is difficult to persuade Americans, let alone those elected to represent them, to unilaterally disengage from a “war” without the requisite signs of victory.  Such signs were in abundance at the end of the actual war in Iraq: enemy POWs, a bombed capital city, effigies of the enemy leader ripped from their pedestals, etc.  But an occupation does not lead to a triumphal march through the streets or a treaty signed on a battleship.  It cannot provide victory of the sort that the “war” metaphor promises.  By invoking this metaphor in the case of Iraq (and Afghanistan, for that matter) we frame the conflict in a way that makes it extraordinary difficult to bring ourselves to break off from it.

This is not to say, of course, that “war” should never be used.  Nor is the case being made that the issue is whether “war” is being used correctly in a legalistic sense.  The objection to the use of “war” in the case of Iraq is not that the invasion and occupation did not occur under the auspices of a formal declaration of war.  Certainly American involvement in Korea and Vietnam deserved to be called “wars” regardless of whether they were declared or not.  Insisting on not calling something a war will not necessarily make it easier to end.  In fact, in the case of both Korea and Vietnam, surely the hesitance by political leaders to call these episodes “wars” made it easier, not harder, to escalate them.  The argument is simply that, in the case of Iraq, the use of “war” to describe the conditions after spring 2003 was figurative and that the adoption of this figure by all involved was both understandable and, from the point of view of those who labeled themselves “anti war,” tragically counterproductive.

The Cult of the Kill

As we have seen, “war” possesses a terrible power as a representative anecdote, so much so that in the case of Iraq, it is invoked unquestioningly by all parties concerned, despite the fact that it does not describe the situation on the ground.  This discussion focused on Burke’s observations about war’s constitutive powers as a term—its socio-political power.

But there is another level.  Other forces are at work which are more deeply psychological.  Again, Burke offers us a vocabulary with which to talk about them, particularly his idea of the “Cult of the Kill.”

The Kill, the climax of the order-pollution-guilt-purification-redemption narrative, describes the destruction of the scapegoat—a sacrifice—that purges collective sin (or, more properly, the guilt created by the sense of having sinned).  For Burke, of course, this process should be symbolic.  Yet the symbol of The Kill, like the term “war,” is dangerous in that it is easily misunderstood or pursued so feverishly that it becomes an end in itself.  In its most destructive form, it becomes literal.  It takes the form of conflict rather than becoming a symbolic way of transcending conflict through dialectic.  In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke tells us why this is:

[G]enuine peace today could be got only by such a dialectic that risked “contamination” by the enemy.  Or rather, by such a dialectic as sought deliberately to give full expression to the voice of the enemy, not excluding it, but seeking to assign it an active place in an ultimate order.  But when confronting the need for “dyings” and new “births” thus dialectically encouraged, men seem to prefer the simple suicide and homicide of militarist devotion, having persuaded themselves that the further dialectical growth of doctrine would be immoral.  (Burke, Rhetoric of Motives 263)

This aptly captures the tenor of the war rhetoric of the Bush administration (and many others) from September 11, 2001, through the invasion of Iraq, and beyond.  Understanding underlying causes for the attacks, or even focusing strictly on eliminating those most responsible for the attacks, were lost under the rhetoric of “evil” that placed any dialectic out of bounds and symbolically conflated the 9/11 hijackers, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein into one looming threat that had to be destroyed through “simple homicide”—what Burke would call an example of the “’scrupulous’ preference for militaristic solutions over peaceful solutions” which is part and parcel of the deception used to invoke a devotion to killing (Rhetoric 264).

Here, Burke delves more deeply into the power of war as symbol, a power that goes beyond its use as an anecdote to its deeply entrenched psychological seductiveness.  Just as it “draws things to a head as thoroughly as a suppurating abscess,” it draws people together: “we cannot deny that consubstantiality is established by the common involvement in a killing” [Burke’s emphasis] (p. 265).  Burke immediately follows this statement with the warning, “But one must not isolate the killing itself as the essence of the exaltation” (Rhetoric 265).  The problem, as Burke himself realizes, is that the awful lure of the literal understanding of the kill as a replacement for the messier, more complicated dialectic of peace can overwhelm us.4

The invasion and occupation of Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks gives us an all-too-vivid example of Burke’s fears about the perversion of The Cult of the Kill.  We collectively enact an Abrahamic sacrifice of our sons (and daughters) in an effort to rid ourselves the “evil” that we have allowed to harm us.  But this act itself causes guilt. (How could it not?)  And more sacrifice is required.  Thus, we get the often-invoked argument that if we were to leave Iraq, those who have fallen already “will have died in vain.”  More killing is required to stave off the terrible guilt that would come from asking ourselves, “Why did we do this?” and not having an answer worthy of the sacrifice.  And so more are killed.  And the potential guilt grows.  And the killing must continue, ad infinitum.

The way out, Burke tells us, is through a simultaneous dying and not-dying—dying dialectically.  The first step in this, I am arguing, is to “refigure” the situation in Iraq, denying it the lure of war by critiquing the metaphoric discourse that dominates the discussion of Iraq and offering an alternative discourse based on simile that points out similarities and differences and opens the way for multiple perspectives.  But, as our discussion of the Cult of the Kill suggests, we cannot simply change the way we talk about Iraq.  We have to find an alternative way of feeling about it as well.  We must find an alternative mode of symbolic dying that allows for consubstantiality, purging of guilt, and dialectic with the “enemy” that does not stress the image of the kill over this dialectic, which, Burke reminds us, leads towards the Holocaust rather than away from it (Rhetoric 254). 

Responses to the Metaphor of War

What would such a “refiguring” look like?  Let me briefly offer two suggestions for how, on a practical level, the metaphor of war could be dismantled in a case like Iraq, the first a “negative” solution, and the other a “positive” one.

The first and most obvious response is to point out the mistaken use of the term “war” and refuse to use it.  Such action could be taken by any and all inhabitants of the public sphere, from the president to the average consumer of the news.  Barack Obama could have, both as candidate and as president, reframed the narrative of Iraq as of a war won, followed by an occupation and a return home.  This could have mobilized the dominant American narrative of war—World War II—in a positive way, suggesting that the war had been won, and now we had to “bring our boys home.”  This would not automatically mean that there would be unanimity about the proper course of action; even those accepting this framing of the issue might point out that the United States maintained a significant presence in Europe for decades after the end of World War II and that this presence was necessary for the region’s stability.  But that debate—whether to end an occupation outright or greatly reduce troop levels participating in it—would be much more easily won than a debate about ending a war.

Similarly, critics of the war metaphor could point out the inaccuracy of the term “war” when used in a way that denied its figurativeness.  Journalists could pointedly not use it and critique those who did. When journalists did use it, readers, listeners, and viewers could contact news organizations and point out that the term “war” was misleading and carried an inherent bias.  Self-aware activists could pointedly talk about ending the “occupation” rather than the “war,” and call out their fellow activists who had been lured into adopting this metaphor.  Lastly, students of public discourse could speak up about the inaccuracy of the term and expose the interested motives behind its use.  No doubt there would be many who would turn a deaf ear to such critique, but the more often efforts were made to problematize the unthinking use of the war metaphor—however humble such attempts might be individually—the more difficult it would be for this metaphor to be taken literally.

There is a second, more positive, approach that could be taken as well.  This would be a Burkean solution in that it would invoke the trope of irony to expose the figurative nature of the term “war” as applied to Iraq.  Critics could insist on taking the war metaphor literally themselves, and push for this understanding to be played out to its logical end.  If we truly are at war, then we are fighting for our survival.  If that is the case, then every conceivable action should be taken that would ensure victory.  A move could be made to institute a draft to ensure enough troops to fully pacify Iraq.  Rationing should be put in place to make sure the military has the finest of all material goods in any quantities needed.  A congressional declaration of war should be made to unequivocally commit ourselves to the task at hand. War taxes should be levied so that we are truly supporting our troops by more than affixing a bumper sticker to our SUV.  The use of atomic weaponry should be openly considered as a viable option.

Such suggestions, whether advocated by elected representatives or their constituents, would be ironic to the degree that they would be made not for their own sake, but to reveal the fact that many who support the continued occupation under the cover of “winning the war” would balk at enacting them. Yet, when this happened, those who demurred from supporting these acts could be asked why they are not in favor of doing all that might help to win the war.   Again, this might not yield immediate results.  There is no guarantee that it would yield any results at all.  But using irony to unmask the metaphorical use of “war” would make its invocation more problematic.    Unfortunately, such tactics went largely unused by those opposed to the continued occupation of Iraq, with a few scattered exceptions, the most notable being Representative Charlie Rangel’s yearly introduction of a bill to reinstate the draft. 

Conclusion: Toward the Purification of the “War” Metaphor

How does this discussion help us move toward a better life, toward a “purification of war?”

“War” as a term for the occupation of Iraq cut off the way to peace.  It was invoked by people on all sides without much attention being paid to whether it is being used literally or figuratively.  Of course, Burke would instantly note that simply by virtue of the term “war” being a symbolic construct, it is figurative.  Moreover, it convinces us that the conflict in Iraq was not simply “like” war in some respects, but was war, and with that comes a host of associations that conceal facts, motivations, and possible courses of action.  The war metaphor holds out appeal to all involved in the debate, even to those who oppose the conflict. Most importantly, it tells us that the way forward must be through what Burke calls the Cult of the Kill, this time understood literally, either through destruction of the “enemy” or through an act of collective suicide (“surrender”). 

The job of the rhetorical critic is, first, to point out the figurative nature of the term “war” as applied to Iraq and to make explicit the consequences, intended or not, of its use.  The rhetorical critic must show how the use of war cuts off certain paths of action and obscures ways of looking at the issue that might prove productive.  The critic can point out that the conflict in Iraq might be like a war in some respects.  The simile is true.  But it cannot be called a war in any but the most figurative of senses.  The metaphor “We are at war in Iraq” is a lie.

Of course, the ultimate Burkean goal before us is not simply to point out the problems with “war” as a term in the particular case of Iraq, but to move us toward a symbolic transcendence of war itself.  But in the case of the “war,” we at least have one clear, albeit small, step we can take toward that goal.  The role of the rhetorical critic is to refigure the metaphor of war, to rehabilitate it, so that it can play the role Burke envisions for metaphor—a tool with which to gain perspective.  To do this, however, we must acknowledge that any term we choose will always be imperfect.  Only by synthesizing multiple perspectives can we hope to grasp the state of the world.  This way lies the ironic, the comic, and the humane. 

* Dr. Ted Remington is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  He can be reached via email at tremington@sf.edu.

An earlier draft of this paper was initially delivered at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society, June 29-July 1, 2008


1. It is beyond the scope of this essay to offer a catalog of the numerous ways Bush and other administration officials have invoked “war” to describe the post-invasion occupation of Iraq, but a few representative examples might be in order.  In an address to the nation on December 18, 2005 (more than 18 months after the invasion of Iraq), Bush said, "not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq.”  Nearly a year later, in announcing the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bush said, “America remains a nation at war . . . In this time of war, the President relies on the Secretary of Defense.”  At the same announcement, the new nominee to be Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, said, “[T]he United States is at war, in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  Speaking of Iraq in his 2007 State of the Union speech, Bush said, “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in. Every one of us wishes this war were over and won.”  A year later, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Bush conceded, “No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure.”  In all of these cases, Bush’s word choice states or implies that the “war” in Iraq is ongoing and didn’t end after the occupation of Baghdad. 

2. Again, an exhaustive study of the use of “war” by the media in referring to the occupation of Iraq is beyond the scope of this essay, but there are many examples.  A New York Times article discussing the role of the Iraq issue in the 2008 presidential campaign noted that “Democratic contenders and the presumptive Republican candidate, underscoring how much the economy has overshadowed the war in Iraq, even as the fifth anniversary of the start of that war approaches on Wednesday.”  The following day, an Associate Press story on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq stated that “Activists cite frustration that the war has dragged on for so long and hope the more dramatic actions will galvanize others to protest.”  An article in USA Today about an Army college football player drafted by a professional team who will avoid having to serve in Iraq observed, “more than 4,000 servicemen and women have been killed in the war that's been going on for more than five years with no end in sight.”  As with the rhetoric used by Bush himself, the word choice in each example suggests that the “war in Iraq” is ongoing and current.

3. Several of the leading groups opposing the continued occupation of Iraq prominently invoke the term “war” in their messages to this day.  On its homepage, the group United for Peace & Justice demands that the government “stop sinking billions more of our tax dollars into war.”  In describing their group on its website, CODEPINK says that it “is a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end the war in Iraq.”  An organization of those with family members in the military, Military Families Speak Out, features a call to the Democratic presidential candidates on their website, demanding “Senator Clinton and Senator Obama: use your leadership now to end the war in Iraq!”  And Iraq Veterans Against the War embeds the term in their very name, saying on their website that the group’s purpose is “to give a voice to the large number of active duty service people and veterans who are against this war.”

4. Under the heading of “meaningful coincidence,” it is difficult to read Burke’s section in A Rhetoric of Motives on Order, the Secret, and the Kill without marveling at how the imagery he uses prefigures the symbolic condensation of the events of September 11, 2001 and Iraq.  A recurring image in Burke’s discussion of the Cult of the Kill is that of a father and son standing on top of a tall building in New York City, with the father startled by the sudden thought of throwing his son over the edge.  Burke closes the section with the following paragraph:

“And when our friend, standing with his son in that high place, felt ‘infanticidal’ impulses, perhaps he was but manifesting roundabout the fact that he felt exalted, as though he and his son shared the attributes of the Ultimate Father and the Ultimate Son in heaven.  Even though he may not have got to such feelings by true religious reverence, he could have got to them by the temptations of social reference.  For here was the principle of hierarchy materialized, as he stood atop a high building, while that building itself represented nothing less than the straining social hierarchy of the great modern Babylon.  ‘And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.’ (Revelation 17:5).” (Rhetoric 266-267).

What would Burke have made of the fact that the destruction of two of these monuments to the “straining social hierarchy” in this “great modern Babylon” would be symbolically linked to the invasion and occupation of the land that was once ancient Babylonia?

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"Ceci N’est Pas Une Guerre: The Misuse of War as Metaphor in Iraq" by Ted Remington is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

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

Abram Anders, University of Minnesota Duluth


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspective by Incongruity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Crimes of Juxtaposition”: Incongruous Frames in Sullivan’s Travels

Brian O’Sullivan, Saint Mary’s College of Maryland


Increasingly, rhetoricians are taking notice of the intertwining of “serious” discourse with comedy, humor and satire. Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, for example, includes an array of articles that recognize the “discursive integration” (Baym 2005) of news and politics with comic entertainment. Rather than seeing this integration as a degradation of news into infotainment, Baym sees it as a creative response to the need to make important information competitively appealing in the “televisual sphere” of a post-modern consumer economy. But does the framing of journalism and politics as humor or clowning leave room for the possibility of serious, constructive action?

A KIND OF COMMENTARY IN advance on this “postmodern” problem is offered by Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), a seminal film-about-film which has often stymied viewers by its seemingly incoherent muddling of serious themes and low comedy.  Sturges’ film takes as its central question whether or not comedy is relevant in a world of economic depression and war—and it arrives at an ambivalent conclusion.  In exploring this question, Sturges (1898-1959) paralleled his near contemporary, Kenneth Burke. Burke’s frames, along with his concept of perspective by incongruity, provide robust and flexible equipment for analyzing the discursive integration of the humorous and the serious in the mass media. The idea of comic framing has already been applied to Saturday Night Live (Smith and Voth), for instance, and Kaylor has recently applied comic, burlesque and satirical (as well as epic) frames to reviewing the controversy over Judge Roy Moore’s courtroom display of the Ten Commandments. To frame serious matters comically and comic matters seriously, or even comically, is to partake of the spirit of Burkean “counterstatement”—the principle that active inquiry and flexible thinking require every settled perspective to be unsettled by contrary perspectives.  This unsettling approach serves as an antidote to false certitude and leaves us self-reflectively aware of the absence of a firm foundation for action—though still in want of such a foundation. Through Burke, we can see Sturges’ apparent muddling as a productive, and disquieting, example of perspective by incongruity. Like Burke, Sturges finds no particular perspective—or genre—adequate in itself.

The Problem and the Plot

Sturges, in his memoirs, retrospectively took a dim view of the genre mixing in his film:

Sullivan’s Travels started with a discussion about movie-making, and during its unwinding tried a little bit of every form that was discussed. It made for some horrible crimes of juxtaposition, as a result of which I took a few on the chin. One local reviewer wanted to know what the hell the tragic passages were doing in this comedy, and another wanted to know what the comic passages were doing in a drama. They were both right of course. (Sturges 195)

The notion that tragic passages were incompatible with comedy and comic passages incompatible with drama echoess 1930s and 40s Hollywood marketing demands. Predictability was commercially important, especially as movie-making became more capital-intensive, and most especially in times of hardship when audiences were thought to want the reassurance of the familiar without too much intellectual challenge or provocation (Harvey 410). Burkean rhetorical theory, however, makes it possible to understand Sturges’ “crimes of juxtaposition” as intentional, strategic violations of the Hollywood rules. “Burke,” as Hatch (744) puts it, “offers a comic corrective, ‘perspective by incongruity,’ which transcends the serious commitments of each distinct perspective of human motives and can appreciate their differences as complementary, not conflictual.” This complementariness, however, is perhaps only available at a certain level of abstraction—that is, from a kind of critical metaperspective. In Sturges’ film, the divergent perspectives and genres are complementary only in that they all contribute to the whole narrative and its critique of its own medium and social context. The incongruity between these perspectives allows Sturges to expose a false choice offered by the Hollywood machine, in which it sometimes seemed that directors could only choose between going through the crowd-pleasing motions of formulaic comedy or making solipsistic gestures at symbolic action in serious (but seriously unpopular) drama.

Initially, Sturges, by his own account, intended the film as a rebuke—a “comic corrective,” even— to some whom failed to respect the purity of the comic:

After I saw a couple of pictures put out by some of my fellow comedy-directors, which seemed to  have abandoned the fun in favor of the message, I wrote Sullivan’s Travels to tell them that they were getting too deep dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers. (195)

Sturges’ peers, driven by the seriousness of the times, were making films that mixed “comedy” (or humor, or satire) with “deep dish,” or ponderously grave, social and political messages. Capra, for example, was criticizing political corruption in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Luvitch was satirizing Soviet totalitarianism in Ninotchka.  As Sturges saw such projects when he set out to make Sullivan’s Travels, they were subordinating the primary imperative of cinematic comedy—to make people laugh—to external agendas. As Moran and Rogin have pointed out, Sturges feared that Capra and company were losing the appeal of comedy in the process of trying to harness that appeal to a Popular Front; these directors seemed overly optimistic about their ability to critique capitalist corruption within a capital-driven medium. In the first half of Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges mocks the errant comedy directors by portraying the vain efforts of his protagonist-director to transcend genre and make a socially important work. As the film goes on, however, it portrays real injustice, and its satire shifts to target social conditions, thus undermining the notion that laughter by itself is a sufficient goal. This ambiguity of genre can profitably be understood, and can in turn illuminate, Burke’s literary categories and genre-based frames for narrating history.

Before discussing the film from divergent perspectives, a synopsis will be helpful. The protagonist, John L. Sullivan, is a Hollywood slapstick director who decides to cast comedy aside and make a saga, O Brother Where Art Thou, which will speak to the serious issues of the Great Depression. Studio executives, appalled at the idea of a project that sets social commentary above profit, tell Sullivan that he can’t succeed because he “[doesn’t] know what trouble is”; a pampered studio executive, he lacks the perspective necessary to represent the suffering of the masses.  Sullivan takes the criticism to heart—and he is propelled also, perhaps, by his sense of being trapped in a gilded cage with all the comforts Hollywood has to offer but without a real purpose, stuck in a sham marriage designed as a tax write-off by the accountant who has now taken up with his wife.  Sullivan resolves to travel the country in the guise of “tramp” so that he can learn enough about the lives of the poor to portray them empathetically in his film. Much of the first half of the movie concerns itself with Sullivan’s vain attempts to escape from Hollywood and see the real world; he is trailed by a “land yacht” sent by the studio executives who are trying to protect their prime talent, and when be he convinces his handlers to leave him alone, he hitches a ride only to be dropped off back in Hollywood.

Finally, however, Sullivan, along with a female travelling companion and love interest he meets along the way, does manage to move among the poor as one of their own.  In a long silent montage in the middle of the film, Sullivan and his companion (who is never named in the film, and who is known in the credits only as “The Girl”) witness a poignant yet sentimental tableau of deprivation, as they sleep in flophouses and rummage in garbage cans. Unlike their “fellow” impoverished, however, they are able to leave their deprived state and return to the comforts of the land yacht at will—and in fact, they run to that comfort after they apparently rummage in the wrong garbage can (although viewers are spared the apparently revolting sight that the protagonists see in that can). Sullivan now feels he knows enough about trouble to make O Brother Where Art Thou, and, as studio publicists prepare to tell his heroic story, he returns to the poor to reward them with handouts of cash for helping him learn what he needed to know. However, in the process of making this “last hurrah,” Sullivan is mugged, rendered amnesiac, and presumed dead. In his confusion, he quarrels with and strikes a railroad employee, and he is sentenced to a chain gang. In scenes reminiscent of I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (as noted by Moran and Rogin 131), the prisoners’ life is represented in ways that are more gritty and realistic than the film’s earlier representations of poverty. After running afoul of the warden and spending time in a “sweat box,” Sullivan apparently finally does “know what trouble is.” However, rather than confirming his ambition to leave slapstick behind, Sullivan’s time as a prisoner leads him to an epiphany about the value of laughter. When the prisoners are welcomed to a local African-American church to watch a Walt Disney cartoon, Sullivan is startled by the almost ecstatic laughter of his fellow prisoners. The cartoon depicts a hapless dog, Pluto, getting trapped in fly paper and otherwise stymied; although, or perhaps because, the film depicts a kind of imprisonment, the real prisoners watching it forget their troubles and are transported by laughter. Sullivan himself joins with the prisoners and their hosts in the laughter—thus becoming, for the first time in the film, unambiguously part of a social body; as Moran and Rogin (133) observe, the camera pans back to show the director as part of the masses. After Sullivan returns to Hollywood by “confessing” to his own murder and thus getting himself in the papers and getting the attention of his old friends and employers, he reunites with The Girl, whom he can marry now that his estranged wife, believing him dead, has remarried. He startles his employers by renouncing his ambition to make O Brother Where Art Thou; though they believe the film can now be a sensation and commercial success, he says, amazingly, that he has not “suffered enough” to make the film faithfully. Sullivan tells them what he has learned about the importance of laughter: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Do you know that laughter is all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”

But this gushing line seems hollow. If laughter alone is “all some people have,” it hardly seems sufficient—especially after the film has shown us the suffering of the poor and imprisoned. And even as the film breaks up into a tableau of laughing faces—with Sullivan’s and his fellow prisoners among them—laughter alone seems an inadequate response to real suffering. Sullivan seems to have been co-opted back into his world of oblivious luxury.  This has left critics puzzled as to Sturges’ point. Although he claims, in his memoir, to have begun with the intention to remind his peers that laughter is a worthy goal, he seems to ultimately arrive at this conclusion only facetiously. If Sullivan’s ambition to speak for the poor was self-righteous and presumptuous, his retreat from that ambition is nevertheless callow and quitistic. Thus, Moran and Rogin (107) call the film “oddly self-cancelling” and suggest that it brilliantly critiques cinematic activism while still leaving the impression that dumb laughs are not enough—and without proposing an alternative to activism. Harvey suggests that its picaresque digressiveness makes it sometimes less purposeful than some of Sturges’ other films, though he also finds it ultimately also a bit too “blatant” in its “preachment against preachments.” Sturges, as we have seen, agreed with critics who found that the film erred by mixing comic and tragic idioms. I argue, however, that this muddling was key to Sturges’ innovation.

Perspective by Incongruity: The Method of a Clown

Sturges’ retrospective worries about his film’s “crimes of juxtaposition” are symptomatic of the “occupational psychoses” of a Hollywood writer/director and a critic. An “occupational psychosis,” as Burke reads Dewey’s term, is a “pronounced character of the mind” that arises from and supports a particular way of making a living (PC 40). Writers have their own occupational psychoses; professional writers, Burke says, have found their audiences and made their livings by specializing in particular sensibilities: “One became adept a kind of barometric response to the concerns of others. The type ranges from Broadway drama, through Hollywood, to simple reporting” (PC 48). The subtype of “Hollywood” is still further subdivided by Sturges, in his concern for the proper domain of “comedy-directors.” Comedy-directors, according to Sturges, specialize in “fun,” and straying into “message” compromises their professional integrity. He nevertheless does so stray in Sullivan’s Travels--but in his retrospective doubts about his “crimes of juxtaposition,” the Hollywood occupational psychosis is amplified by the critic’s. “Paradoxically enough,” says Burke, “perhaps the specifically writer’s psychosis, as opposed to any other, is to be seen in criticism, though it is usually the critics who are plaguing the poets with the charge of specialization” (PC 48).  The typical modern critic’s sense of superiority is partly “justified,” however, in that the critic’s “essayistic” mode of writing is better suited than poetic writing to the dominant occupational psychosis of the modern world: the technological psychosis (PC 48). For Burke, whereas primitive magic sought to control nature and religion sought to control human relations, science, the “third great rationalization,” is “the attempt to control for our purposes the forces of technology, or machinery” (44). The occupational psychosis of technology is to see values primarily or only in terms of machinery, or as “tools or weapons in the struggle for existence” (PC 45). For instance, to the extent that Hollywood writing and filmmaking aim to become “barometers” of the concerns of the movie-going public in order to fund the Hollywood machine, they reduce art to “tools or weapons” and are unable to perceive alternative purposes or principles—except, perhaps, in the light of perspective by incongruity.

The term “occupational psychosis”—and with it, the related but more explicitly ambivalent term trained incapacity--is an example of “perspective by incongruity,” which Burke  defines at an elementary level as “taking a word usually applied to one setting and transferring its use to another setting” (PC 90). Perspective by incongruity “violate[s] the ‘proprieties’ of the word in its previous linkages,” (PC 90) and thus has the capacity to startle us out of rigid preconceptions. Like Shakespearean metaphor, it has the power of “revealing…hitherto unsuspected connectives which we may note in the progressions of a dream. It appeals by exemplifying relationships between objects which our customary rational vocabulary has ignored” (PC 90).  Among Burke’s examples are “that big dog, the lion” and “man as the ‘ape-God”; depending on how we are used to categorizing “lion” and “man,” these verbal innovations may provide a “sudden flash” that disrupts, or shines light on, our categories (PC 90). Thus, “perspective by incongruity” is not only a category which the terms “occupational psychosis” and “trained incapacity” exemplify, but also a corrective to these limitations which these specialized perspectives entail. Though we are trained to see in certain ways and not in others, we can glimpse in other ways by the “flash” of perspective by incongruity.

Burke’s idea of enlightenment through violating proprieties is reflected by Sturges’ praise of clowns—those specialists who make an occupation of impropriety. Sturges dedicates the film to clowns:

To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.
Clowns are by nature improper and incongruous; they are defined by “defiance of normal rules of behavior, or of physical logic” (McManus 13). The clown in fiction “is either too smart or too dumb” to be bound by conventions, and he or she thus struggles with problems whose solutions are obvious to “normative characters” and the audience. The clown’s novel solutions to these problems make us laugh and/or think (McManus 12). In its method of revelation by impropriety and surprise, clowning is like perspective by incongruity.


And by taking on the perspective of tramp, buffoon or clown, Sullivan enacts a kind of perspective by incongruity; he becomes what we might think of as “’that big dog,’ that penniless tramp, a Hollywood director,” in order to surprise himself and his viewers into seeing differently.  For Sturges as for Burke, “trained incapacity” and “occupational psychosis” are obstacles to identification across socio-economic class; the capitalist and the laborer cannot see from each other’s occupational perspectives.  Sullivan seeks to overcome these obstacles by literally walking in the shoes of another class. The attempt is not unpredecented; as Schocket explains,

Between the depression of the early 1890s and progressive reforms of the 1910s, a number of white middle-class writers, journalists and social researchers ‘dressed down’ in order to traverse with their bodies what they saw as a growing gulf between the middle class and white working and lower classes. (Schocket 110).
In a sense, this masquerade might be seen as an attempt at Burkean identification and consubstantiation. As Schocket shows, however, such experiments frequently led to “the translation of class conflict into class difference and then into cultural difference” (127). Instead of consubstantiation, they lead to a substantiation of perceived differences, essentializing poverty as a distinct identity or way of being.


To more effectively communicate to and for the poor, the filmmaker cannot simply imitate the poor; though the naiveté of such a procedure is initially lost on Sullivan, it is not lost on Sturges. Though the film may have been intended, if Sturges’ memoir is to be believed, as a satire on directors who turned their attention from comedy to social problems, it became also, sometimes by turns and sometimes simultaneously, a satire on the social problems itself, a light-heartedly humorous story of a clown, a modern quest romance, a tragedy and a comedy. By reading the film successively as each of these (following the structure used by Kaylor in his study of a religious-political controversy through several frames), I will show how the incongruous rhetorics of the film self-consciously reflect the complex relationship between a socially conscious filmmaker and the viewing public.

Satire: Scapegoating the Director

Insofar as Sturges originally intended the film as a rebuke to wayward comedy directors, he framed it as satire. Oddly, though, to the extent to which Sturges satirizes his peers, he commits the same sin of which he accuses them—for to satirize is not only to play for laughs, but also to have a “message.” This ambiguity as to whether Sturges divides himself from his targets or identifies with them is characteristic of the satirical frame as described by Burke.

The satirical frame, as Burke describes it, is more a “frame of rejection” than a “frame of acceptance”; it is a narrative strategy that tends to be used oppositionally to break with the prevailing order, not to reaffirm it. Burke agrees with Wyndham Lewis that satire is “an attack ‘from without’” (AH 49). Though Burke self-deprecatingly describes one of his own attempts at satire as a bit of “clowning” (“Why Satire” 22), the satirist is not ordinarily equivalent to a clown. Aas Wickberg points out, whereas medieval fools served as “an object of laughter, the butt of all jests,” neoclassical wits and satirists actively directed raillery at others and made their targets ridiculous (52). But Burke adds an important caveat to the “from without” formulation: he believes that satirists characteristically externalize their own shortcomings in order to satirize them as if  “from without” (i.e., as if from a detached critical perspective). “The satirist attacks in others the weaknesses and temptations that are really within himself,” Burke says (AH 49). The best satirists, such as Swift and Juvenal, Burke argues, display a “strategic ambiguity” (AH 49), subtly empathizing with their targets and criticizing themselves.

Such a strategic ambiguity is made apparent by the opening moves of Sullivan’s Travels. First, to slow and sentimental music, a female, well-manicured and tastefully bejeweled pair of hands opens an envelope bearing a “Paramount” seal. The envelope contains a frontispiece; the male and female leads, both in “tramp” clothes and with his hand on her shoulder, gaze solemnly down at a landscape full of Lilliputian-sized, indistinct fellow tramps, who form a queue extending beyond the horizon. The frontispiece is reminiscent simultaneously of Gulliver’s Travels (already evoked by the film’s title) and Grapes of Wrath, forecasting the ambiguity as to whether the film is a Swiftian satire or a “straight” social commentary. The mediation or constructedness of the film is inescapable; the elegant hands that opened the envelope frame the frontispiece—reminding us, together with the towering protagonists, that our view of the poor in this picture is heavily mediated by the affluent. The frontispiece teaches us to be skeptical of this very film along with the films it satirizes.

The strategic ambiguity continues as a page turns, and in place of the frontispiece the credits roll, with the sentimental music reaching a crescendo at “Written and Directed by Preston Sturges”—still a rare credit in 1941, and one that suggests to viewers that the story about to unfold reflects the imagination of one man more than it reflects shared reality. A page turns again, and Sturges’ credit gives way to his dedication “to the memory of those who made us laugh.” This leads us to expect, perhaps, a movie that pays homage to the kinds of tramps known to moviegoers through Keaton, Chaplin, and others, to whom the clothing of the protagonists in the frontispiece alludes. But the white page of the dedication  abruptly fades to black, to be replaced by a darker scene, accompanied by frenetic music; two men—one clad in darker and one in lighter clothes—struggling on the outside of a train, from which they eventually fall into a river, under the title “The End.” This “ending,” as Ames (81) observes, ejects us from one cinematic illusion into another, making us aware that we have been watching a film within a film, and prompting us to be suspicious of further tricks.

At the same time, the film-within-a-film frames the film as a clash between the interests of labor and capital. Sullivan has shown the film as an example of the kind of work he would like to do, but it also seems to be an implicit, perhaps unwitting, ironic comment on his relationship with the executives.  The swirling of the river into which the antagonists have fallen gives way to the swirling of tobacco smoke as we see Sullivan, haloed in the backlight, gesturing wildly and expostulating to studio executives on this allegory of social struggle. In this struggle, Sullivan views himself as “labor,” of a sort; he grumbles that he is “just a minor employee” of the studio. However, their relationship is not so allegorically “black and white”; while Sullivan is wearing light colors in contrast to the executives’ dark, his suit is offset by a dark boutonniere, just as his ideological purity as “labor” is mitigated by his interdependence with studio “capital.” Indeed, he hints that the social problem film will serve his and the executives’ interests as members of a capitalist class; when an executive calls the film he has screened “Communism,” Sullivan calls it “an answer to Communism,” suggesting its utility for capitalists who must mollify labor in order to avoid revolution. The executives are not notably persuaded by this argument, but they are persuaded by profits. Though they believe the public is hungry for Hey, Hey in the Hayloft 1941, and not for O Brother Where Art Thou, Sullivan is a proven moneymaker, so they are resigned to humor him in his humorless project—as long as the film can have “a little sex in it.” Sullivan is only slightly grudging in agreeing to include “a little sex”; he has become idealistic, but not to the point of ignoring marketability altogether. In the rhetoric of the smoke-filled viewing room and the opulent office adjoining it, the persuasive factor is not logos or ethos or pathos, but the inartistic proof of money.

This inartistic proof operates two ways, however. The executives manage to convince their “minor employee” that he has been too rich and too comfortable to speak for the poor. Sullivan has not suffered enough to make a movie about suffering—and he takes this criticism to heart, though not with the result the executives intended. Instead of abandoning the project, he resolves to develop an ethos of experience and suffering that will validate his new, serious cinematic rhetoric. Or maybe he will just dress up as a hobo and go slumming as a way of feeding his ego. Here, the strategic ambiguity of satire arises from contradictory repulsions. The film signals us to be repelled by the mercenary outlook of the dark-clad executives yet it signals this so ham-handedly that we are alerted to be skeptical of the self-appointed cinematic white knight, Sullivan.

And the next scene amplifies this skepticism; here Sullivan is clearly not a neoclassical wielder of ridicule, but a simple object of laughter—the image of the clown, buffoon or fool to which the film is dedicated. Wearing a tattered coat and with sack tied to a stick over his shoulder, he practices his role, he trudges towards a mirror, shoulders slung low;  he is accompanied by cartoonish, comic music, and even his valet tells him that he might be overdoing it a little. While Sullivan thinks that dressing in a hobo’s clothes is part of a sober sociological experiment, the viewers can share Sturges’ joke that Sullivan is really just making himself a Charlie Chaplin character—a recognizable cinematic “tramp” as defined by generic conventions. At the same time, viewers get a hint of Sullivan’s real motivations when his estranged wife calls about her alimony check. The romance of a quest to save the poor and the American way—and now the even greater romance of a quest in search of suffering—seem to be less about altruism than about freedom from a bad marriage and from a comfortable but sterile existence. For Sullivan, the silly tramp costume represents freedom. As Sullivan will realize later, “tramps” are essentially outlaws; they are outside the social system in which every law-abiding citizen has an assigned and inescapable place, and thus they have a kind of freedom. If, as McManus argues, clowns typically acknowledge and break invisible walls that separate the fictional world occupied by characters from the “real” world occupied by viewers, Sullivan goes further; here, the rules at issue are those that make the viewers’ own world a kind of fiction or “imaginary representation” (Althusser)—rules of ideology that determine the sphere or action open to particular classes.


Sullivan, like the typical clown, is both too stupid and too smart to follow the rules. He is “too stupid” in that he doesn’t realize the ethical and physical hazards of class travestitism. He is warned of the risks of class masquerade by his butler, Borroughs.  In a close-up which confers a remarkable gravitas upon an already grave actor, the butler warns Sullivan that the poor resent “invasions of their privacy” and that “poverty is an affirmative evil…to be shunned, sir, even for purposes of study.” And the butler also warns Sullivan that he may be swallowed by this evil; in what may be an allusion to the turn-of-century transvestisim examined by Schocket, Borroughs tells Sullivan of his previous employers who went adventuring “similarly accoutered” in 1910, and “have not been heard from since.” Burroughs’ speech is a key epideictic moment in the early part of the film; his critique reinforces a suspicion that has already been with a viewer who paid attention to the film’s dedication to clowns—the suspicion that Sullivan’s preference for suffering over comedy may be misguided.

But Sullivan is also “too smart” for the rules in that he is learning a clown’s evasive maneuvers. This point is comically dramatized in a tumultuous chase scene immediately after Sullivan’s confrontations with Burroughs and the executives at his home. Now on the road, Sullivan tries to elude the Hollywood land yacht and the comforts of his class. The velocity of his escape, aided by a child in a model whippet tank, pays homage to the slapstick of silent movies while also foreshadowing continued topsy-turvy social mobility and turmoil. In the process, a black cook is dosed in white floor and a police officer soaked in mud; the humor here is an example of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, as hierarchical social distinctions are inverted and dissolved in laughter. This scene exemplifies Bergson’s claim about laughter—that it exposes and defuses the tendency for human behavior to become rigid or automated and devoid of the flexibility and fluidity that conscious choice makes possible (Bergson 10). In Burkean terms, laughter reveals the fissure between action and motion. In the chase scene, we laugh at Sullivan’s incongruous ability to evade and outwit the massive machinery behind him—and perhaps even to evade the occupational psychosis of technology as embodied by this machinery. Sullivan sees the mechanized chase as the sign of things to come at the end of the chase scene. “What a future!,” Sullivan sighs at the end of the chase scene, after the has asked his young tank driver’s age and learned that he is only eight. Clearly he is contemplating the boy’s potential future as a getaway driver or some other kind of speed demon; but at the same time, he might be imagining a larger future in which the world of “moving pictures” has developed into a technological world of unconstrained motion and velocity. Thus, the pursuit of a tramp by a massive land yacht is satire in the sense that Burke describes in his Hellhaven writings—an enetelechial extension of a situation’s negative tendencies towards their dystopian extreme.

Here we again see the satirist’s “strategic ambivalence,” or displaced self-criticism. As an innovator in the still-fledgling enterprise of moving pictures, Sturges is part of a technological movement towards the incipient culture of technology and speed that he satirizes. Conversely, when he satirizes traditional rather than emerging value systems, he also reproduces and exploits the sins of those systems; the carnivaleseue accidents of the cook and the police officer—who are thrust into white face and black face—parody the American minstrel tradition and the stereotypes that carried over from that tradition into film, just as the film parodies social problem cinema. Such an upheaval of values is characteristic of what Burke sees as a transitional time between dominant psychoses—a time of the “bureaucratization of the imaginative.” Deprived by that bureaucratization of a stable moral standpoint, Sturges faces a problem that Bakhtin saw and that literary theorist Linda Hutcheon has called the “paradox of parody”: parody is simultaneously critical and conservative, exploiting and reinscribing what it critiques. Though Hutcheon is addressing parodic imitation, this paradox applies to satire of social realities as well, and it marks of one of the frustrations and limitations of the satirical frame. For Sturges, the comedy-director caught up in the paradoxes and ambiguities of message is necessarily inclined towards losing “the fun” (Sturges 195).

Humor: Dwarfing the Situation

Much of what Sturges calls “comedy” Burke would call “humor.” Most modern “comedians,” Burke notes, are actually humorists, in that they promote an “attitude of ‘happy stupidity,’ in which the gravity of life simply fails to register” (AH 43). This attitude is exemplified by “some childish quality of voice” that is found in Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor and their peers, “the stutterers and the silent” (AH 43). In the company of these peers it is not hard to imagine the old John L. Sullivan, whose oeuvre included such titles as Hey, Hey in the Heyloft and Ants in Your Pants 1941. The childishness and seeming powerlessness of such humorists leads not to their destruction by a cruel world, but to laughter—and this provides otherwise fearful audiences with momentary relief. Humor “takes up the slack between the momentousness of a situation and those in the situation by dwarfing the situation” (AH 43). The humorist diminishes and trivializes problems by turning them into jokes. Humor “specializes in incongruity”—and specifically in the incongruity between small agent and vast situation—but, unlike the grotesque, humor represents incongruity in such a way that it produces the relief of laughter.

Sullivan’s dissatisfaction with his previous films is similar to Burke’s view of humor as a strategy for living. Like the sentimental, in Burke’s view, humor provides an illusory relief by portraying the world as simpler and more hospitable than serious adults typically find it to be. Unlike comedy, humor and the sentimental tend to “gauge the situation falsely” (AH 43). Once Sullivan realizes just how falsely his lighthearted cinematic romps are gauging the situation of the Great Depression and the war in Europe, he responds, in effect, by trying to shift from the humorous to the heroic as a strategy for bridging the gap between human beings and their situation.

“Humor,” for Burke, “is the opposite of the heroic” (43); both humor and the heroic (in particular, the epic) respond to incongruities between a finite individual and the infinite, and infinitely troublesome, world. The epic resolves this incongruity by magnifying the hero. Ancient epics magnified the image of the warlike hero, Burke suggests, in promoting the values of courage and strength that were thought necessary to the defense of the tribe. Epics endow their heroes with virtues such that they appear adequate to the greatest challenges presented by the world.  In a sense, Sullivan’s ambition is epic: he recognizes the vastness of the challenge of representing the poor in cinema, yet he imagines himself adequate to meeting that challenge. The problem for Sullivan is that he is only imagining; he is not, in fact, at all adequate to comprehending the experience of the poor and making himself their spokesman. In his belief that he is adequate to this challenge, Sullivan repeats the error of “gauging the situation falsely”—even though he waxes eloquent about the extent of social problems, he still dramatically underestimates the difficulty of understanding and addressing them. Sullivan, in short, is a mock-heroic hero. As he sets out to cross the landscape of American Depression—the kind of Eliotic waste land that haunts the literature of the twenties and thirties—the viewer knows he is doomed to epic failure. Thus, while attempting to make his own epic, Sullivan becomes the butt of Sturges’ humor. And when the fictional director realizes the falseness of his heroic pose, he returns to humor. For Sullivan, both humor and heroism have now been revealed as false—but humor at least appears to be useful. It provides needed, regenerative relief to the prisoners, and it creates a sense of community between them and their African-American hosts

But when Sullivan fully embraces humor, the portrayal of his character, in the eyes of many viewers, may edge from the humorous towards the unwittingly burlesque. His final line (“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Do you know that laughter is all that some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”) exemplifies the child-like voice or “happy stupidity” that Burke finds among humorists—but if we laugh at it, we probably laugh dryly, and we are perhaps more likely rejecting its stupidity than accepting its happiness. To whatever extent we cringe at Sullivan’s willful obliviousness at this moment, we are reading Sturges’ scripting of Sullivan as something closer to the burleseque—that narrative strategy which features its targets’ flaws to the exclusion of their virtues—than to humor. Any laughter at Sullivan’s misrecognition of himself and his situation does not so much provide relief as express judgment.

And yet Sullivan is rewarded by implicit engagement to The Girl. A Hollywood comic paradigm seems to require this happy ending. The competing demands of humbling Sullivan and marrying him to the Girl posed a problem that Sturges confessed being unable to solve:

The ending wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem, which was not only to show what Sullivan learned, but also to tie up the love story. It would have been very easy to make a big finish either way, but one would have defeated the other. There was probably a way of doing it, but I didn’t happen to come across it. It might be profitable for a young director to look at Sullivan’s Travels and try not to make the same mistakes I did. (Sturges 195)

But Sturges’ dissatisfaction with his own work is premised on the assumption that there had to be a “big finish” that resolved the problems of the film one way or another. We might instead read the vexed ending as a realistic “gauging of the [vexed] situation.” If the ending is unsettling—shouldn’t it be unsettling? The Great Depression and World War II were unsettling, to say less than the least; the question of whether comedies could be “serious” works in such times was unsettling. It is perhaps necessary that the film should have an unconvincing end. The film trains us to be skeptical of Hollywood; it must, then, draw some of our skepticism towards itself.

Romance: Courting Freedom

But to be successful entertainment, a film had to do more than court skepticism; it also needed, in the words of Sullivan’s boss, “a little sex.” More than that, it needed romance. If Sullivan cannot escape Hollywood literally, neither can the story Sturges is telling about Sullivan escape Hollywood conventions. Just as the studio executive cautioned Sullivan that his movie must have a little sex in it, Sturges puts a little romance, if not actual sex, in Sullivan’s Travels. Yet while the satirical frame tends to keep Sullivan trapped in Hollywood, the romantic frame impels him to wander. In an odd sense, the Paramount marketers actually advertised the film’s “romantic frame” as an alternative to comedy and tragedy; the film’s tagline reads “A Happy-Go Lucky Hitch-Hiker on the Highway to happiness! He wanted to see the world . . . but wound up in Lover's Lane!” (IMDB). This tagline emphasizes the film’s “love story,” but the film is also a romance in another sense: it enacts what Burke, in A Rhetoric of Motives, calls “the ‘principle of courtship’” (208). This principle is “the use of suasive devices for the transcending of social estrangement” (208). Taking her cue from this principle, Lewis approaches interreligious dialogue from through a “romantic” frame, seeing a kind of “courtship” between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists. This romantic frame is useful for understanding Sullivan’s Travels as an attempt to “woo” a movie-going audience to transcend social estrangement and identify with the downtrodden.

The difficulties of such “wooing” are made apparent in Sullivan’s first stop after he ditches the land yacht. Promising to meet his exhausted pursuers in Las Vegas, he nevertheless finds himself back at the movies. He is hired as a laborer by an amorous widow with designs on him based on misrecognition of his socio-economic needs and vulnerability; her “courtship” of him parodies, in effect, the kind of cross-class courtship that Burke envisions:
If a woman of higher social standing (a ‘woman of refinement’) were to seek communion by profligate abandonment among the ‘dregs of society,’ such yielding in sexual degradation could become almost mystical. (208)
But instead of a socially recognizable “woman of refinement” who courts the economic “dregs of society,” Sullivan’s Travels presents a backwoods petty doyenne who reaches across class lines to court a supposed tramp who is actually a wealthy Hollywood director. The lack of authenticity of their “courtship” frames an example of the inauthenticity of socially conscious film; the widow takes him to a sad, serious movie, which proves to be a claustrophobic experience, in which the audience seems neither entertained nor edified but merely bored.  This does nothing to jolt Sullivan out of his ambition to make serious films, but it does seem to fuel his desire to be free (while also foreshadowing the frustration of that desire). That night, he escapes from the bedroom in which the widow has locked him; he hitches a ride—and finds himself again in Hollywood.


To escape Hollywood will require a more convincing instance of the principle of courtship. When Sullivan meets the Girl, there is again a misrecognition of social disparity. Though leaving Hollywood in poverty, she can at least afford a bus ticket and a plate of ham and eggs for someone who appears to be a penniless tramp; she believes she is doing a favor for someone who is socially inferior to her. She doesn’t know that he is among the directors she has been trying to “court” to advance her career. Her attempt to reach out to the poor is, unknown to her, a farce, and to the viewer she appears at first only to be present for a gag and as a concession to Hollywood conventions and marketability. As he tells a police officer who has pulled him over as an apparent hobo who seems to have stolen John L. Sullivan’s car, and who asks him what The Girl is doing in this picture, “there’s always a girl in the picture; haven’t you ever gone to the movies?”.

When The Girl learns Sullivan’s true identity and becomes an ally in his project, their relationship becomes a truer courtship in Burke’s sense of the word; they are partners from across a social gulf, bringing disparate perspective together. She is crucial in helping Sullivan escape; in keeping with the conventions of screwball comedy, which Sturges himself had played a leading role in creating, The Girl is in some ways more savvy and gritty than her male co-protagonist, and it is only with her as companion that he manages to break out of the Hollywood bubble. Moreover, The Girl disguises her gender in order to travel inconspicuously with Sullivan; she adopts gender tranvestisim in order to facilitate what Schocket calls “class transvestitism.”  With The Girl, Sullivan finally gets his first taste of the open road—they hop onto freight car, and, though sneered at as amateurs by their fellow travelers, they make it off alive.  They accidentally find themselves in Las Vegas; though they are glad to find the land yacht, as they are hungry and penniless, Sullivan yearns to continue his adventure. It seems he will be sidetracked by a fever—but it is in that fever that he has his epiphany about the freedom of tramps. He realizes that “some invisible force”—the invisible hand of capitalism, perhaps—keeps him and others in place, as if saying “as you were, so you shall remain.”  And “tramps,” Sullivan imagines, get in trouble because they are outside the system that the invisible force protects. After Sullivan has this realization he and The Girl escape their handlers and enter the world of breadlines, shelters and revivals, and the film blends slapstick humor with gritty realism. In a long, silent montage in the middle of the movie, the two protagonists move among scenes of the gravest suffering—even passing under the shadow of a hanged body in one scene—but they also laugh at vermin-induced dancing, and we laugh at the quirks of their shelter-mates and the ridiculous extremities of their circumstances . The montage provides a funnyhouse version of the mutually destructive complicity between labor and capital seen at the beginning of the film; while Sullivan wears a sandwich board for Mo’s tailor shop (“Don’t look like a tramp! Slightly damaged misfits.”), the girl carries a picket sign protesting Mo’s exploitation of union labor. We begin to see that poverty and comedy are not mutually exclusive. It is here that the “paradox of parody” leads Sturges’ film to become more progressive than he may have meant for it to be; whereas he may have set out to tease directors who had gotten too invested in a high-minded, activist role, he does some of their work for them by showing audiences what suffering looks like.

But despite the success of courtship at broadening the film’s perspective, Sullivan, at first, is unable to bring his relationship with The Girl to the happy ending suitable to a comedy; trapped in a tax shelter marriage, Sullivan is unable to propose to the Girl, and unable to wriggle out of the fiction he has made for himself. This frustration seems to confirm Sullivan’s intuition that an “invisible force” keeps everyone in place; rather than a “mystical” fulfillment of romance, the film seems headed towards tragic acceptance—a reaffirmation of resignation to the existing order, with all its inequities and encumbrances on freedom.

Tragedy: Victimage and Transformation

Sullivan’s hubris in trying to escape this system leads to his tragic downfall: amnesia and imprisonment. Amnesia serves as a symbolic death, wiping away Sullivan’s prior identity as a wealthy director. Sullivan’s misrecognition—indeed, his non-recognition of himself—leads to a tragic reversal. For the movie to end at that point would have seemed to validate two seemingly quite different positions: that of the socially conscious “deep dish” directors whom Sturges professedly wanted to rebuke, and that of Burroughs in his admonition to Sullivan. The tragic ending would show that the deep dish directors were right that the times demanded tragedy rather than unalloyed comedy, and that Burroughs was right to warn that poverty is “to be shunned, even for purposes of study.”


By such closure the film would complete the mortification of the commercial individualist that was, by Burke’s reckoning, the original function of tragedy. In Burke’s imagination of the passage from the primitive to the classical, tragedy displaced epic when “warlike” virtues (AH 35) became outmoded due to “the individualistic development of commerce” (AH 37). As merchants gained wealth and power not rooted in “the earlier primitive-collectivist structure” (AH 37) of tribes and communities, the peoples’ “fear of self-aggrandizement was strong” (AH 37). Tragedy gives vent to this fear by symbolically humbling and expelling the hubristic self-aggrandizer.

On the other hand, the problem with a tragic frame for the Great Depression is that tragedy is a frame of acceptance—and the Depression exposed and aggravated social injustices that were not acceptable. In the absence of a “primitive-collectivist structure,” humbling one capitalist among many—especially when the one humbled capitalist had pro-social ambitions—would do little to satisfy any “fear of self-aggrandizement.” We would simply be told that directors should stay in their place and the impoverished masses should stay in theirs—not a particularly satisfying prospect for anyone.

Accordingly, the movie continues beyond its tragic “ending” to enact a more productive aspect of Sullivan’s symbolic death, which allows Sullivan to discover a remnant of “collectivist structure.” Death in literature, as Burke argues in his discussion of Lycidas in A Rhetoric of Motives, is often a symbolic action that prepares the way for transformation (RM 3-6). Sullivan’s amnesia wipes out his old substance—his identity as wealthy director. Needing new ground on which to stand, he is enabled to identify with the poor and reach the moment of consubstantiality in the church, at the movies.  There, the film provides an epideictic answer to Burroughs in the person of an African-American preacher who welcomes the prisoners to a picture show. Whereas Burroughs argued that “poverty is to be shunned,” the preacher suggests that poverty is to be engaged; he tells his congregants that they are not to shun “those less fortunate than ourselves,” but to welcome them. The preacher also serves as an answer to the awkward minstrel-show parody of race relations in the land yacht chase scene; whereas that scene merely inverts racial roles, the preacher reconciles them; singing “Let My People Go,” he includes the white prisoners in his congregation’s aspiration to freedom. When the congregation and the prisoners, watching Pluto’s humorously entrapped antics, laugh together, Sullivan finally experiences consubstantiality with a community.

And only after discovering the value of laughter does Sullivan move toward a comedic end, reversing the transformation worked by his amnesia. In making this move, he depends on upon the fixed social boundaries that he once, as a clown, transgressed; he had told the prison trusty, much to the latter’s innocent surprise, that “they don’t send picture directors to a place like this for a little disagreement with a yard boss”—and it turns out to be true, at least, that directors don’t stay in prison. “I killed John L. Sullivan,” Sullivan proclaims loudly in the presence of the warden, thus getting his picture in the newspaper and bringing about his rescue by The Girl and the studio.  Like the imagery of killing and suicide Burke discusses in his analyses of Milton’s Lycidas and many other literary and rhetorical works, Sullivan’s “killing” of Sullivan is a transformative symbolic action (RM 3-6). It is his final clown-like act of transgression—but also an act of reaffirmation. “He’d have to be a Houdini to get out of this one,” Sullivan’s business manager had told his wife on hearing the news of his “death.” And indeed, in his clowning, the director has also become an escape artist. He escapes even his marriage: “You’re free,” the girl tells him, after giving him the news of his wife’s remarriage. “Not for long,” he replies, smiling. “Freedom” is redefined from the individualistic economic liberty of the rich to free participation in community and family. Sullivan has escaped tragedy and is about to attain the classic comedic conclusion, a wedding.

Comedy: Man in Society

“Rather than seeking death or banishment of the scapegoat, [comedy] attempts to shame or humiliate the protagonist into changing his or her actions,” as Smith and Voth paraphrase Burke. Sullivan has, indeed, been humiliated into changing his actions; he has abandoned his hubristic view of himself as an American savior. And he reaches the threshold of the traditional comic closure: marriage. Yet Sullivan’s own perspective at the end of the film is more humorous than comic; Sullivan chooses “happy stupidity” and the renunciation of any social purpose beyond the relief that laughter brings.

Comedy, as Burke understands it, is not to be confused with humor; its objective is not necessarily to produce laughter, but to promote a humane and tolerant, yet not passive, attitude of acceptance (AH 107). Indeed, contrary to Smith and Voth, comedy is not always about shame and humiliation, but it is necessarily about sharpening our awareness of our own, inevitable, human foolishness—so that self-knowledge may be tempered or mitigated, though it cannot be eliminated. The comic frame, according to Burke, entails self-observation without passiveness; the true comedian has an ironic detachment, but that detachment provides a space for reflection and judgment, not for ultimate resignation and withdrawal.

“The progress of humane enlightenment,” Burke says, “can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken” (41). If, for a moment, we view Sullivan’s newfound advocacy of the humorist’s perspective as “not vicious, but…mistaken”—if we do not sneer but smile and shake our heads at his blithe acquiescence to a situation in which laughter is “all some people have,” and at his abandonment of the ambition to expose and change the material conditions of that situation—then we see the film not as either burlesque or tragedy but as comedy. Sullivan chooses to make a humorous film; but Sturges, in large part, has made a true comedy.

Yet, it could only be comedy “in large part” because pure comedy would not ring true. “An ideal world is one in which comedy would be a perfect fit. But to say as much,” Burke laments, “is to disqualify comedy, since this is so far from being a perfect world” (72). Some recent Burkean scholars have tried to reconcile the potential of “comedy” with manifestly tragic aspects of history. Condit, Farrell and Hatch have all recognized that recognition of the tragic construction of history is ubiquitous in Burke’s thought and may be a necessary predicate to the reconciliation and healing Burke seeks; as such, they have suggested that we should think of this reconciliation and healing not as simply “comic” but as “tragicomic.” For Hatch, “tragicomic framing” is a way of confronting the need for racial reconciliation without excessive scapegoating; the tragicomic frame recognizes tragic history while projecting a comedic conclusion.  Sturges achieves a kind of tragicomic framing by incorporating the tragic realities of destitution and chain gangs in the midst of laughter. But in doing so, and in allowing his fictional director only the most tentative and questionable of triumphs, Sturges acknowledges, like Burke, that “this is far from being a perfect world.”

Discursive (Dis)integration

Sullivan’s Travels influenced the Coen Brothers’s playful version of the tragicomic corrective in O Brother Where Art Thou, the film that takes its name from the abandoned project in Sullivan’s Travels. This O Brother has been called a comic epic of the American South (Ruppersburg). It is not the “deep dish” panorama of suffering that Sullivan imagined, but it is a film that incorporates chain gangs and the Ku Klux Klan into an irreverent, non-formulaic comedy. Indeed, it represents a pastiche of every stereotype of the racist South. Like Sullivan’s Travels, then, it encourages us to laugh with our eyes open, without obscuring the reality of injustice and of suffering. As another encomium to clowns, and an homage to Sullivan’s Travels itself, O Brother Where Art Thou, with the new televisual satires, testifies to the continuing relevance of Sturges’ film as well as the growing relevance of satire, humor and comedy to serious discourse. This rhetoric seeks to induce in the audience the clown’s outsider perspective, free of the blindspots of insiders well-socialized in a discourse.

O Brother Where Art Thou, like Sullivan’s Travels, can be accused of “crimes of juxtaposition.” So can, for example, Jon Stewart, who was told “I thought you were going to be funny” when he reproached the Crossfire hosts for insufficient seriousness in their debates on public affairs. But as these “crimes” have become more ubiquitous, they have come to seem less criminal. While Baym’s concept of “discursive integration” is useful in conveying the convergence of discourses that formerly seemed mutually exclusive, we might equally well speak of discursive disintegration, as the boundaries and definitions of particular frames or genres no longer seem very clear. “Disintegration,” in this sense, need not be a pejorative term; if occupational psychoses are being disintegrated, ground may be prepared for consubstantiation and a more inclusive conversation.

At the same time, Sullivan’s Travels, together with Burke, cautions us not to be too sanguine about the prospect of salvation though comic framing or through perspective by incongruity. To expose the dysfunctionality of dysfunctional perspectives is not to produce a functional perspective. The film’s ungainly conclusion—suspended between the Hollywood happy ending and tragic loss—reminds us that there is no simple solution to the problem of making art in a troubled world. Humorous news and serious satire provide an abundance of counterstatement, but they do not provide the abiding and definitive statement which we continue to crave. Art, and mass media, will be troubled and troublesome. 

*Brian O'Sullivan is an Assistant Professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland.  He can be reached via email at bposullivan@smcm.edu.

In this way it is quite like much of the satire in the contemporary “televisual sphere”. The Daily Show, as Morreales points out, insistently critiques the very blending of entertainment and new that it exemplifies.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. NY: Monthly Review Press, 2001. Print.

Ames, Christopher. Movies About the Movies: Hollywood Reflected. Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Print.

Baym, Geoffrey. “Crafting New Communicative Models in the Televisual Sphere.” The Communications Review, 10.2 (April 2007): 93 – 115. Print.

--“The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism.”
Political Communication, 22.3 (July 2005): 259 – 276. Print.

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

--. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. Berkeley and Lose Angeles: UC Berkeley, 1984. Print.

--A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley and Lose Angeles: UC Berkeley, 1984. Print.

--. William Howe Rueckert and Angelo Bonadonna, eds. On human nature: a gathering while everything flows, 1967-1984. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: UC Press, 2003. Print.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Cloudsley Brereton, trans. New York: The McMillan Company, 1941. Web, 2010. 8 August, 2010. Print.

Condit, Celeste Michelle. "Post-Burke: Transcending the Sub-Stance of Dramatism" Quarterly Journal of Speech 78.3 (1992): 355. Print.

Farrell, Thomas B. "Comic History Meets Tragic Memory: Burke and Habermas on the Drama of Human Relations." Kenneth Burke and Contemporary European Thought. Ed. Bernard L. Brock. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995, 488-493. Print.

Gray, Jonathan, Jeffrey P. Johnson, and Ethan Thomson. Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era. NYU Press: New York and London, 2009.

Hatch, John B.Reconciliation: Building a Bridge from Complicity to Coherence in the Rhetoric of Race Relations.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 6.4 (2003), 737-764. Print.

Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy in Hollywood. New York: Da Capo Press, 1987. Print.
Hutcheon, Linda. Theory of Parody: Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. London: Methuen, 1995. Print.

Internet Movie Database. “Sullivan’s Travels,” 2010. Web. 10 August, 2010.

Kaylor, Brian T. “Savior, Fool or Demagogue: Burkean Frames Surrounding the Ten Commandments Judge.” KB Journal. 6:2 (Spring 2010). Web. 10 August, 2010.

Lewis, Camille. Romancing the Difference. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 1997. Print.

McManus, Donald Cameron. No Kidding!: Clown as Protagonist in Twentieth-Century Theatre. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2003. Print.

Moran, Kathleen and Michael Rogin. “’What’s the Matter with Capra?’: Sullivan’s Travels and the Popular Front.” Representations, 71 (Summer 2000), 106-134. University of California Press, 1984. Print.

Morreale, Joanne. “Jon Stewart and the Daily Show: I Thought You Were Going to Be Funny.” Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era. Eds. Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey R. Jones and Ethan Thompson. NYU Press: New York and London, 2009. 104-123. Print.

Ruppersburg, Hugh. "Oh, So many Startlements...": History, Race, and Myth in O Brother, Where Art Thou?”  Southern Cultures. 9: 4 (Winter 2003). 5-26. Print

Schocket, Eric. “Undercover Explorations of the ‘Other Half,’ or the Writer as Class Transvestite.” Representations, N. 64 (Autumn 1998): 109-133.  Print.

Sickels, Robert C.  "We're in a tight spot!": The Coen Brothers' Screwy Romantic Comedies.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 36:3 (Fall 2008). 114-122. Print.

Sturges, Preston. Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life and Words. Sandy Sturges, ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990. Print.

--, dir. Sullivan’s Travels. Paramount, 1941. Film.

Smith, Chris and Ben Voth. “The Role of Humor in Political Argument: How ‘Strategery’ and ‘Lockboxes’ Changed a Political Campaign.” Argumentation and Advocacy. 39.2 (Fall 2002):110-130. Print.

Wickberg, Daniel. The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell U Press,1998. Print.

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“Crimes of Juxtaposition”: Incongruous Frames in Sullivan’s Travels by Brian O’Sullivan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

A Perfect Loathing: The Feminist Expulsion of the Eating Disorder

Stephanie Houston Grey, Louisiana State University


In Kenneth Burke's Language as Symbolic Action, it is suggested that communities build internal cohesion by negating portions of their constituencies in rituals of purification.  Over the past thirty years these dynamics have been evidenced in the role that eating disorders have played in the development of contemporary feminist consciousness.    While key feminist authors have been framing these conditions for the larger public, the manner in which anorexia and bulimia have been projected through these writings has become increasingly problematic.

This article deploys Burke's frameworks of purgation and negation to explore the dynamics of a changing narrative within the feminist community and the consequences of that narrative for those identified as having an eating disorder.  With the spread of American culture world-wide, eating disorder and feminism have both 'gone global’ intensifying and complicating debates about diversity and authenticity.  Thus, new emerging frames of reference may make possible a recasting of this troubled relationship.

ONE OF THE EARLIEST TEXTS to make the connection between food and feminist consciousness was Margaret Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman (1969). It is revealing to note that Atwood, who would become iconic for dramatizing feminist issues within her fiction, chose to inaugurate her career by exploring women’s struggles with consumption. Forging an authentic relationship to food, including detangling its complicated relationship with consumer culture, the health and beauty industry, and the patriarchy, has long been at the heart of the feminist project; meanwhile, Western culture, led by the United States, has seen rates of obesity on the rise, even as the cult of the thin grows more permeating.  Caught in the frenzy, stigmatized from all directions, those identified as eating disordered find no public stance that others may accept.  Their condition is all the more poignant in that, potentially, they may reveal the unsustainable paradoxes of consumption that are etched visually into their bodies and made physical by their apparent inability to simply enjoy and digest. This paper explores their plight as made manifest in discourse, especially key texts in feminism, the movement that once seemed poised to come to the aid of these abject but has instead turned on them, accusingly.

At the end of The Edible Woman, the main character Marian bakes a cake representing her body and leaves it in the hands of her male suitors, who devour it.  Atwood is scrutinizing the way that women’s bodies have themselves been offered as products for heterosexual male consumption and that the reclamation of these bodies is central to freeing the mind from patriarchal control.  Emerging at almost the same time was the first modern, encyclopedic treatise on eating disorders. Psychologist Hilde Bruch (1973) connected the dieting pressures placed on young women to the explosion in the diagnoses of anorexia nervosa, adding this insight to her clinical assertions that eating disorders also illustrated compromised childhood development.  As expert conversations about eating disorders moved to center stage in the public culture, second wave feminism coalesced into a distinct cultural force that transformed dominant understandings of eating disorders as a manifestation of troubled psychology into a political issue. During the following decades, feminist explanations for anxieties about the body and consumption, and eating pathologies affecting women went virtually unquestioned in American culture.  Kenneth Burke (1989) observed that attempts to overturn orthodox understandings are often enacted against a mythic backdrop.  Using set, stage, and critical agon, major intellectual shifts are constituted as high dramas, albeit at times hidden within their literal vocabularies.  Following Burke’s reading of the function of culture, it becomes clear that certain questions have been obscured within the historical association between feminism and eating disorders.  First, where may we see this mythic force and what does it look like?  Second, what dynamics have marked the historical transformation marking eating disorders as a nexus of the personal and political?  Third, what has been the impact of this political appropriation for those identified with these conditions?

Unlike most mental illnesses, eating disorders are widely believed to be contracted by transmission, not unlike a virus, from either from one sufferer to another or from elements of popular culture. Today, the most resonant of contemporary feminist observations about eating disorders targets the beauty industry’s marketing strategies, particularly the argument that overly thin models constitute a source of contagion through which these conditions are spread. Naomi Wolf (1991) puts it in stark terms, writing, “We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth” (10).  This argument, which has moved beyond the academy to become a cultural commonplace, suggests that women, who are subjected to higher standards of thinness than men, are victimized by a misogynistic cosmetic and clothing industry that strikes at the core of their self-esteem and renders their bodies objects for commercial consumption.  Jean Kilbourne’s influential lecture series Killing Us Softly is one of many examples of counter-campaigns designed to reverse the effects of the beauty industry.  More importantly, most undergraduates are able, without prompting, to correlate these images of air-brushed models to eating disorders.  Wolf (1994) also asserts that beauty standards are issues of power, writing that “the cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female control” (97).  As women navigate the public and professional spheres, their status as objects of desire delegitimizes any serious goals that they might achieve.  This issue of control and resistance to control has blended seamlessly with the discourse surrounding eating disorders.  As Eve Browning Cole states, “Constant dieting, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, compulsive exercising, and (not least of all) enormous cash investments in beauty and fashion, are all symptomatic of the power of the cultural ideal” (66).  Fashion magazines, particularly those directed at teenagers, portray female bodies that are unrealistic, establishing standards of beauty that are beyond reach.  These authors and many before them share the assumption that eating disorders constituted a symbolic contagion, and that a systematic political response was required to combat them.

Unrecognized in this shift from understanding eating disorders as a manifestation of troubled child development to a result of the beauty industry run amok is the way that strategies of political empowerment were blended and transformed with those of political containment. Throughout his work Burke explored the dynamics of linguistic identification, the process through which communities organize and reorganize themselves through deeply entrenched symbolic dynamics.  These undercurrents sometimes surface through redemptive rituals of purgation, purification, perfection and transformation.  At the core of these sub-currents resides the essential counter-dynamic of linguistic negation.  Burke observes that “definition is a symbolic act” that blends the differentiation of symbols with cultural admonitions and that negation is the driving force connecting “thou shall” and “thou shalt not” (Language as Symbolic Action 44).  During times of stress and transformation, communities enact these redemptive rites by “projecting” a symbolic container of pollution.  This projection is “the curative process that comes with the ability to hand over one’s ills to a scapegoat, thereby getting purification by disassociation” (Philosophy of Literary Form 202-203).  He warns that “the principle of perfection in this dangerous sense derives sustenance from other primary aspects of symbolicity.  Thus, the principle of drama is implicit in the idea of action, and the principle of victimage is implicit in the nature of drama” (Language as Symbolic Action 18).  Drama is therefore not complementary or external to literal political enactments, but constitutes the substance of these acts.  As communities constantly strive to perfect the images and ideas around which they are built, they also negate and thus purge elements that have some projected association with their own substance.  During key moments of political transformation, these redemptive rites embody the counter-veiling forces of identification and separation in such a way that participants may act unconsciously to purge and contain potential elements of their own imagined constituency—a process that can have negative consequences for the scapegoated group that is marked and isolated.  Thus, as communities seek to realize some desirable telos endemic to the vocabularies they embrace, the drive to perfect these ideological lexicons has a profound effect on the cartographies of exclusion that mark all political units.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s the eating disorder became so thoroughly integrated with ruminations over the hyper-visual, artificial commercial culture that cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard (1989) used the metaphor of the anorexic to characterize this two-dimensional glut.  The eating-disordered subject was no longer a real person in the traditional sense, but an inauthentic extension of this commercial economy of illusions.  When Burke observed that containment strategies driven by symbolic negation result in the creation of new social hierarchies he went on to suggest that the ultimate example of this ritual negation is embodied by those moments where “being” is contrasted with “non-being” (On Symbols 269).  During the late 1980s, as eating disorders gradually moved from the therapeutic realm to that of cultural and political criticism, representations of the eating-disordered person underwent a problematic transformation.  While this transformation was part of a larger, ongoing cultural process, a prominent locale for this shift came in the new ways that some feminist authors began to define these conditions.  Certainly the insights into both the cultural context and therapeutic culture surrounding eating disorders made by many feminist theorists have been extremely valuable in providing new vocabularies for managing eating disorders. However, at a key juncture in this history a paradigmatic change occurred when the discourse of liberation shifted dramatically to that of containment.  Most important to this reversal was feminist philosopher Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight (1995), a work with a broad influence that has extended into the new century.  As it projected the eating-disordered person as a symptomatic outgrowth of patriarchal repression that had to be contained in order to facilitate women’s empowerment, this book provoked a conflicted, even combative, relationship between feminism and the eating disorder through which the body became a site not of reclamation, but expulsion.  The present essay explores this intellectual shift as a symbolic drama in which rituals of perfection and self-realization became guiding dynamics in quarantining and stigmatizing the eating-disordered person.  First, this piece investigates how the eating disorder became a central metaphor in the gender equality debates of the 1970s and 1980s.  Next, it examines the strategic negation of the eating-disordered person within this political context as the anorexic/bulimic subject was transformed into a projection of patriarchal visual codes.  Finally, this work discusses the political and social ramifications of the containment strategies through which the eating-disordered person was symbolically purged as a non-woman (indeed a “non-being”) and ultimately as a patriarchal tool.  Only by understanding the history of the eating disorder as a product of dramatistic motive can the contours of isolation and stigma associated with these conditions be appreciated.

The Transformation of Eating Disorders into Metaphor for Woman’s Struggle

Burke observed that ritual drama is the focal point for all dynamic symbolic and intellectual activity, functioning as an “Ur-form or hub for all human action” (PLF 134). Not relegated to the primitive, these conflict-driven enactments remain submerged within literal discourses that subsequently shape a milieu. The Burkean template is such a powerful tool for analysis because of its capacity to find within these dramas more than mere symbolic abstraction, drawing connections instead to the sphere of practice. In this framework, the agents in these dramas enact formal structures and, in turn, are impacted by discourse in material ways.

As eating disorders came to occupy the public’s attention during the 1970s with high profile celebrity cases such as Karen Carpenter, these conditions were quickly appropriated by many feminist scholars as essential components in understanding women’s modern experience.  These conditions inspired a generation of therapists, led in part by the influential Susie Orbach, to create a new type of treatment that blended traditional psycho-dynamic approaches with narratives of political empowerment.  From this standpoint, patients’ resistance to their disease was sublimated in a program designed to encourage them to assert their political status and independence from a repressive regime.  This fusion of the therapeutic and the political was also fueled by confessional moments in the work of high-profile feminist authors.  The subsequent drama enacted through this literature would become integral to our understandings of both eating disorders and feminism as uniquely related, consubstantial issues.

Perhaps most interesting about the appropriation of eating disorders is the extent to which they have become the “women’s disease,” conditions that are so universal to women’s experience that, even if individual women do not develop full-blown pathologies, all suffer the negative consequences of weight neuroses. Notice how seamlessly Orbach (1986) makes this connection:

There are those women who are constantly dieting and consistently limiting their food intakes, there are those women who diet during the week then let themselves go at weekends, there are those women who do not eat until suppertime…there are those women who consistently plan to diet but end up over eating every time they start to eat something (compulsive eaters); and there are those women who try to avoid food at all costs (anorectics). The adaptations are endless and women vary in their responses (61).
She then suggests that for millions of women “food is a combat zone, a source of incredible tension, the object of the most fevered desire, the engenderer of tremendous fear, and the recipient of a medley of projections centering round notions of good and bad” (62).  As they have lost control over the ways that their bodies are represented, women must now constantly battle to meet normative standards that are both unrealistic and beyond their ability to set.


It is not surprising that, for many early authors who write in this vein, confession is a powerful discourse for marking female bodies as political subjects, since as a narrative form it is deeply tied to the assumption that the personal is political. These assumptions about commonalities in experience moved away from biological essentialism to support the notion that women shared the same problems and conditions, a unity that had been denied by the patriarchy’s fragmentation and reduction of gender.  Sheila Collins writes, “We came to learn that the problems we thought were purely personal—that we thought were due to our own peculiar upbringing or to our own inabilities or neuroses were in fact, shared by every other woman” (363).  The experience of the eating disorder or related issues dealing with food was one arena where these commonalities could be located and to some extent exploited, as the patriarchal enemy galvanized women’s experience into a general theory of sexual politics and shared interests.  This focus on the private sphere as extension of the political had a profound impact on the ways that eating disorders came to be recognized within the feminist community.  Sandy Friedman asserted that male-based language “forces women either to deny their own experiences or to reframe them in male-defined language.  Reinforcing only the male perspective makes women feel that the very way that they speak is wrong and that the stories they tell are trivial” (290).  The feminist strategy of inserting narratives from the private sphere into the political realm to establish authenticity has translated quite easily into the realm of food disturbances.  In fact, both discussions emerged concurrently in the late 1960s.  The link between individual trauma and commonality in experience represented by eating disturbances became a natural conduit for this discourse of the personal made public, legitimating the anorexic/bulimic experience as symbolic of women’s experience in general and illustrative of the challenges that they had to overcome.

Growing from the dramatic linkage between food consumption and female emancipation within feminism has been a culture of confession in which individuals find entry into the “women’s community” by discussing the pressures levied against them by the diet industry.  The most vivid moments of oppression and subsequent awakening for many white, middle class women often center upon issues of weight and appearance.  Gloria Steinem (1983) notes that the most powerful moment in her young adulthood was her recognition that she possessed an eating disorder, a realization that led to an interrogation of her own internalization of sexist values.  An eating disorder, from this standpoint, becomes a rite of passage or admission into a community—an experience that signifies that you have suffered as your sisters have and can purify yourself through confession.  It is not surprising that Wolf, who made manifest “the beauty myth,” would also share similar occurrences in her life:

It is dead easy to become Anorexic.  At 13, I was taking the caloric equivalent of the food energy available to the famine victims in the siege of Paris.  My doctor put his hands on my stomach and said he could feel my spine.  I turned a cold eye of loathing on women who evidently lacked the mettle to suffer as I was suffering.  Adolescent starvation was, for me, a prolonged reluctance to be born into womanhood if that meant assuming a station of beauty (102-103).
Containing most of the commonplaces of the female experience of anorexia, Wolf’s account is very instructive because it presumes a commonality of experience among all women.  Like many accounts of religious conversion, a deluded existence is replaced by a higher level of consciousness—in this case, rejecting the anorexic/bulimic identity for a more authentic mode of political awareness.


As this drama evolved, it spawned a body of scholarship that interrogated the obsession with the control and management of the female body in popular culture.  After critiquing Victorian assumptions about feminine hysteria, among the next goals of many contemporary feminist thinkers was to disengage eating-disordered individuals from the realm of individual psychopathology and discuss them as socio-political phenomena, particularly as casualties of the consumer culture obsessed with the shape and size of women (Hepworth & Griffin 1990).  For the past thirty years, media critics have examined the roles that fashion magazines, the beauty industry, and icons such as Barbie Dolls, play in creating unrealistic body expectations in young women and, by extension, eating disorders (i.e. Spitzack 1993; Kilbourne 1995; Wolf 1991).  This abundance of research is designed to demonstrate that the recent increase in the occurrences of eating disorders is a predictable outcome of media campaigns that imprison women in their own bodies, thus exposing the negative impacts that such representations have on self-perceptions (Botta 2000; Harrison 2000) as well as revising therapeutic approaches to the treatment of women who display consumptive pathologies (Gremillion 2002).  Robin Morgan laments, “We have no bodies either because they are defined, posed, abused, veiled, air-brushed or metaphorized by men” (53).  The eating-disordered person and her treatment became a projected template upon which to ritually contest this oppression. 

Burke notes that frameworks of acceptance and rejection emerge from particular political contexts.  During key points in history, he notes, “Our philosophers, poets, and scientists act in the code of names by which they simplify or interpret reality.  These names shape our relations with our fellows.  They prepare us for some functions and against others, for or against the persons representing these functions” (ATH 4). The cultural revolution that defined feminism in the 1960s and 70s revolved around the idea that personal enlightenment was the first step toward challenging the destructive policies and perceptions of patriarchal false-consciousness.  In the case of food, Kim Chernin (1981) described a prison constructed from “our culture’s tendency to encourage women to retreat from strength and physical abundance into a sinister self-reduction” (182).  It is important to note that this appropriation locates the eating disorder as a site of conflict, translating these conditions into the critical agon of an ongoing quest for perfection ultimately realized by political empowerment and self-determination.  While this pathway could be understood as a personal journey, these journeys shared certain key elements.  To understand the personal as political meant to apply shared political frameworks to the subjective lifeworld.

Most important to this historical appropriation, eating disorders became a projected site for the enactment of women’s struggle for independence.  Since eating disorders present a false consciousness that must be corrected, a patient’s reticence to alter her behaviors is often viewed as a resistance to appropriate gender identity.  This frustration is illustrated in Orbach’s work where she suggests that anorexia expresses ambivalence toward gender identity.  She writes, “Sexual identity is an aspect of gender identity so that in rejecting models of sexuality one is simultaneously rejecting models of femininity” (183).  The anorexic’s resistance to her own femininity was graphically illustrated in the popular literature of the late 1970s surrounding this topic.  Lui, for example, describes her disgust with her gender in the most visceral terms: “I grab my breasts, pinching them until they hurt.  If I could only eliminate them, cut them off if need be to flat chested like a child again” (79).  What emerges is a type of opposition between feminism as the acceptance of femininity and the eating disorder as a pathological rejection of femininity.  Along with descriptions of the way the female body is appropriated by the beauty culture, a discourse for reclaiming the body as a site for authentic feminine experience also emerged.

Through these key texts, eating disorders were projected as a sphere against which the empowerment of the feminine could be enacted.  Anorexia can thus be seen as a form of protest by turning the body into a creative palimpsest on which pain can be inscribed and represented.  One key to using the eating-disorder body as a site for critique is finding ways to heal the fractures between self and representation that define it.  This notion plays a significant role in feminist understandings and responses to eating disturbances.  Miriam Greenspan (1983) asserts, “As long as woman is essentially defined by her body and as long as her body is appropriated by men, she will always have the problem of female identity” (181).  Yet it is important to note that even as these authors appropriated the eating disorder as a political issue, they also maintained a humane, empathetic relationship to these conditions.  Orbach (1986) noted that politicizing the eating disorder might have therapeutic value since, if “we begin to see the anorexia as an attempt at empowering, and food refusal as the action of one whose cause has been derogated, dismissed or denied,” then, “there is an urgency and a strength in the refusal to eat.”  She continued, “To see the anorectic’s food refusal as a hunger strike is to begin the process of humanizing her actions” (102).  Thus, almost as soon has she had appeared on the public stage, the eating-disordered subject became one of the primary actors in the drama to empower women and legitimate their experience.  One sees in Orbach’s work a reverence for the anorexic even as she labored to turn her patients’ energies toward more productive forms of protest and resistance.  While Orbach suggested that the eating-disordered subject possessed a certain agency through her refusal to eat, a new generation of scholars would largely desert this position as they explored the philosophical and socio-historical significance of the eating disorder for women.  After the anorexic’s appropriation into the body-politic of the feminist community, the stage was set for her to become the subject of ritual purgation as this developing political entity embraced lexical strategies to perfect itself.

Purification and the Eating Disordered as Patriarchal Agent

By the late 1980s the eating disorder had become firmly established as one of the primary signs of women’s struggle for political consciousness.  It functioned as persuasive evidence for the negative impact of patriarchal images and discourse on women’s lives.  Yet, as the next decade came into finer relief, the dramatic dynamics began to shift from appropriation to purification.  Burke observed that symbolic motive is driven by a will to perfection that can be achieved only by systematic negation (Language as Symbolic 145).  This leads to critical junctures where elements of one symbolic domain are purged, facilitating a reorganization of the remaining components in a new symbolic hierarchy.  This clarification (and here the term clarification is used in the technical sense—the reduction of elements to their essential form) of terms leads to a new and more powerful “curative unification” (PLF 219).  As the eating disorder entered into the realm of cultural critique proper, these individuals were gradually read as cultural symptoms or ancillary extensions of other political forces.  This process occurred during a discrete period of time within certain portions of the feminist community where the eating disorder was reduced to a mimetic spectacle that, rather than producing its own original voice, simply spoke through an artificial form of perverse mimicry of commercial culture.  Once the connection between the eating disorder and the artificial was established, this led to the symbolic containment rituals of purification which the clarified  the feminist enterprise through the projection of the eating disorder as an entity that was at once an agent provocateur of the patriarchy and a two-dimensional non-being.  As the eating disorder had become a stage upon which feminine emancipation was enacted, a new generation of scholars began to characterize eating disorders as inauthentic non-beings who had to be quarantined.

This process was gradual.  Caroline Walker Bynum’s (1987) Holy Feast Holy Fast and Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s (1988) Fasting Girls, following Bruch’s lead, explored the relationship between practices of religious fasting (anorexia mirabilis) and modern anorexia.  Unlike Bruch, however, each would recast this history as concerned with political authenticity and voice.  For Bynum, anorexia mirabilis, rather than misdiagnosed anorexia, was a legitimate form of self-expression with motives set in contrast to the modern disease paradigm.  She considers cases such as that of Julian of Norwich as well as a host of other Christian anchorites who used fasting as a legitimate means for communing with Christ.  Unlike the modern anorexic who attempts to mimic the diet and fashion models, the “miracle maidens” recognized that women had a deeply entrenched symbolic connection to food and by performing their sacred roles in particular ways, they could gain social status.  Bynum writes, “They manipulated their families, their religious superiors, and God himself.  Fasting was not merely a substitution of pathological and self-defeating control of self for unattainable control of circumstance.  It was part of suffering; and suffering was considered an effective activity, which redeemed both individual and cosmos” (207).  Their ability to sustain their bodies on nothing but the spiritual flesh provided them status as holy vessels of transmutation.

While Bynum’s work on the medieval body and women’s attempts to gain recognition within the Church is informative, one striking characteristic is the author’s assertion that the miracle maidens must be demarcated from women of the modern period who engage in the same practices. Commentator Michelle Lelwica (1999) suggests that Bynum seems to set the medieval and modern in opposition, with a preference for the former, writing, “Her appreciation of it [mirabilis] downplays the extent to which this construction of female holiness has supported oppressive ideologies of women and the pursuit of feminine virtue into the present.  Ultimately, Bynum’s reluctance to question the belief that female suffering and sacrifice are salvic contributes to her distinction between the symbolically fruitful practices of medieval women and what she sees as the superficial motives of present day anorexics” (28).  Certainly the two phenomena are marked by historical distinctions and differing contexts, but Bynum’s assertions that the miracle maidens are so different from modern women who engage in identical practices reads like a defense of her subject matter against the inherent superficiality of the modern eating disorder.

This question of the relationship between mirabilis and nervosa was re-engaged the following year by Brumberg, whose work brought a slightly different perspective to this issue.  Brumberg seemed to challenge Bynum, but her deference to Bynum’s historical containment argument blunted her critique and her ability to draw clear conclusions.  Brumberg seems, perhaps more accurately than Bynum, to suggest that the transformation from mirabilis to nervosa is a product of Western culture’s shifting vocabularies for understanding unconventional behaviors, as these women are redefined from “saints” to “patients.”  She further appears to correct Bynum by not committing to legitimating mirabilis over nervosa.  Instead, Brumberg suggests that Anorexia mirabilis no longer exists not because the motives of those who starve themselves have changed, but because the paradigms for coding these behaviors have shifted.  If a young woman were to make the decision to self-starve as a means to transmute the flesh of Christ, healthcare professionals would code her as anorexia nervosa regardless of the legitimacy of her motives.  Yet while Brumberg did not seek to legitimate one form over the other, she maintains a focus on the question of legitimacy.  Her primary metaphors to describe the history of anorexia are display, casuistry, and fraud.  One of her primary subjects, Ann Moore of Turbury, presents an example. Playing the role of miracle maiden, she was able to use her status and manipulation of religious narrative and iconography to manipulate her gullible public.  After a physician exposes her fraud, the modern press quickly castigates her.  Brumberg writes:

Ann Moore stood as a symbol of female cunning and deceit.  She was decried by everyone as a fraud and cited in medical textbooks as evidence of the scurrilous nature of religious fasting claims.  Here was a woman who made a mockery of Christian piety and scientific learning, employed her own daughter in the deceit, and drew substantial material gain from the earnest gifts of the pious (60).
While Bynum sought to describe mirabilis in historical isolation from the superficial modern anorexic, Brumberg suggested that differences between these two conditions are the products of cultural vocabularies (i.e. spiritualism or disease).  Brumberg documents how those who starved themselves for God were debunked by enlightenment skeptics and thus moved from the realm of miracle to medicine.  Once the anorexic, with her perverse desire to display her starvation for personal ends has been revealed as a fraud, she can then be correctly cast in the role of patient.  Thus mirabilis and nervosa are both delegitimized in this latter viewpoint.  The primary historical shift in which both works participate is to look at self-starvation as 1) a means of political expression and 2) as a means of inauthentic political expression (at least in terms of its modern manifestation).


Once re-inscribed on the socio-historical terrain of the late 90s, the eating-disordered individual was set to take on a problematic relationship to feminist theory with the publication of Bordo’s (1993) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and The Body. One of the best-selling books on the University of California Press, it had tremendous ramifications for the status of eating disorders in American culture both inside and outside feminist spheres.  Bordo’s work combined cultural critique and philosophical rumination, particularly with respect to the challenges women faced in their coding along the mind/body dichotomy, traced back to the Cartesian subject.  She writes, “If we do not force our work and workplaces to be informed by our histories of embodied experience, we participate in the cultural reproduction of dualism, both practically and representationally” (42).  She then notes, “Between the media images of self-containment and self-mastery and the reality of constant, everyday stress and anxiety about one’s appearance lies the chasm that produces bodies habituated to self-monitoring and self-normalization” (203). Bordo correctly asserts that certain modes of transcendence are promulgated throughout the modern diet culture, which created barriers and boundaries that ultimately damage women’s autonomy.  The forces of normalization continue to destructively influence women’s lives as they struggle to cross the mind/body boundary and exercise real political agency.  Yet when considering eating disorders, she makes a logical turn that had remained nascent in Bynum and Brumberg: that the eating disordered had to be purged for the feminist community to be perfected.

When Bordo presents her sustained analysis of the eating disorder, her interpretation diverges from those of the early 1980s.  In her response to Orbach’s use of the hunger strike metaphor, she posited, “It is no wonder that a steady motif in the feminist literature on female disorder is that of pathology as embodied protest—unconscious, inchoate, and counterproductive protest without an effective language, voice, or politics, but protest nonetheless” (175).  While the eating-disordered individual emerges as a political subject in her work, Bordo wanted to move the discussion away from the idea that they are using their bodies as a site to parody or resist the patriarchy.  She notes, “The anorectic, of course, is unaware that she is making a political statement.  She may, indeed, be hostile to feminism and any other critical perspectives that she views as disputing her own autonomy and control or questioning the cultural ideals around which her life is organized” (176).  Here those identified as anorexic play a key role in the gender political terrain, but any type of anti-patriarchal statement they might be making is completely unconscious.

Of all of the feminist critics who have dealt with the eating disorder, Bordo was most concerned with how anorexia in particular functioned as a political terrain through which women negotiate their relationship with male domination.  Borrowing from Bruch’s work, particularly sections still heavily influenced by traditional psychoanalysis where she speculated that anorexia represents a desire to purge the feminine and adopt the body of an adolescent boy, Bordo suggested that anorexia functions as a space through which masculinist and feminist ideologies are contested: “These two selves are perceived as at constant war.  But it is clear that it is the male side—with its associated values of greater spirituality, higher intellectuality, strength of will—is being expressed and developed in the anorexic syndrome” (155).  Bordo strategically avoided addressing Bruch’s observations that women who engaged in overeating also had male-dominated fantasies.  This point was mimicked and amplified in Leslie Heywood’s Dedication to Hunger (1996), in which the author suggested that certain assumptions found in Western epistemology, particularly the Cartesian split between mind and body, promote feminine disempowerment.  She states, “In both the high modernist art artist and the anorexic there is a rejection and will to eliminate the feminine, a will to transcendence, and to shape the base material into a higher form” (61).  This higher form is associated with the anorexic’s deluded conception of male values, that they are in essence performing a male psychology through self-starvation.  As Bordo gradually distanced herself from Orbach, her commentary on the anorexic became increasingly severe:

Through anorexia, by contrast, she has unexpectedly discovered an entry into the privileged male world, a way to become what is valued in our culture, a way to become safe, to rise above it all—for her they are the same thing.  She has discovered this, paradoxically, by pursuing conventional feminine behavior—in this case, the discipline of perfecting the body as object—to excess.  At this point of excess, the conventionally feminine deconstructs, we might say, into its opposites and opens onto those values our culture has coded as male.  No wonder the anorexia is experienced as liberating and that she will fight family, friends, and therapists in an effort to hold onto it—fight them to the death, if need be.  The anorectic’s experience of power is, of course, deeply dangerous and illusory (179).
Here the eating-disordered persona is seen as an inauthentic, deceptive attempt to construct a sense of self.  She is in fact using the debris of objectification left in the wake of the patriarchy to construct this identity.  She fights against the liberatory impulses of the feminist community so that she can reaffirm a patriarchal psychology that, according to Bordo, she uses to gain unwarranted access to the male privileged world.


Among the key terms that animate Bordo’s discussion of eating disorders, along with “male privileged,” and “feminism,” is “collusion.”  Her position is summarized in the following passage:

The pathologies of female protest function, paradoxically, as if in collusion with the cultural conditions that produce them, reproducing rather than transforming precisely that which is being protested.  In this connection, the fact that hysteria and anorexia have peaked during historical periods of backlash against attempts at reorganization and redefinition of male and female roles is significant (177).
The anorexic is not merely a symptom of femininity as political struggle, she is the engine of the backlash against women.  Given the use of the term “collusion” in the preceding passage, the logical extension of this argument is that the eating-disordered individual functions as a traitor to her gender.  She is an agent provocateur of the patriarchy operating within the sphere of feminism and threatening to destroy it from within.  Following the logical conclusion of this narrative, the eating-disordered person was not co-opted by early feminist writers, but had insinuated herself into this discourse willfully and malignantly to inhibit it from within.  It was she who stood in the way of the logical dynamics of ritual perfection.  Only through her correction and quarantine would women gain access into the privileged center of rationality as equals rather than perverse spectacles.  The anorexic was the commercial spectacle come to life as a patriarchal golem that, if not checked, would ultimately undermine the entire feminist project.


Ramifications for Eating Disorder Community

As the 1990s progressed, earlier understandings of eating disorders as mental illnesses were increasingly eclipsed by their supposed association with criminal activity and gender-betrayal (Grey 2006). Celebrities who were outed as having eating disorders were subjected to campaigns of public detection and confession through which the contours of their body could be used to measure their political authenticity as women.  Bordo supplied the intellectual framework for these performances in public interviews such as the one that appeared in Bitch, in which she commented on the relative political value of various women in the media based upon the size and shape of their bodies (Jervis 2003).  Those whom she identified as being too thin were cast as potential sources of contagion and hence outside the borders of the feminist community.  The intense speculation about the relationship between the size and shape of a woman’s body and her political awareness came to fruition with Ms Magazine’s “This is What a Feminist Really Looks Like” campaign.  One of the interesting ironies of this viewpoint was that the quarantine of the anorexic became a means for gaining access to the sphere of Cartesian rationality as the rejection of the eating disorder became a bridge for entry into the male-privileged sphere.  This transformative reversal whereby the contours of resistance mimic the contours of oppression reflects one of the most troubling of Burke’s observations about liberatory politics. In Attitudes Toward History Burke observes that ideologically-driven groups who deploy negation as a strategy to secure their own borders will themselves become products of an unconscious reversal whereby they begin to exhibit the structural contours of the very group whom they seek to challenge (21).

This obsession with political authenticity and the body stems in part from the dramatic context emergent in the early 1990s, an association that continues to have disturbing ramifications for both feminism and those associated with eating disorders.  Indeed, at least one critic has cautioned against the stance—suggesting that those with severe mental and physical health issues are not the best targets for rejection—even if this rejection fuels political progress for feminism (Nicki 2001).  Unfortunately, this passing comment went largely unheard. Through the appropriation of the eating disorder and subsequent quarantine, some feminist authors created a new internal dynamic through which women were set in opposition to one another and instructed to reclaim their bodies by rejecting and isolating their own sisters.  In some ways, this campaign provides vivid evidence for what Phyllis Chesler called “women’s inhumanity to women,” as in their attempts to break with the patriarchy some women had inadvertently adopted the very coercive strategies that they sought to escape.  These voices became products of the dramatistic dynamics and aesthetic undercurrents upon which they had relied rather than projecting a flexible emancipatory future.  It is a failure rendered acute, as these narratives continue to reverberate through the eating disorder community.

Perhaps the most problematic legacy of the history of eating disorders has been the systematic division between body and voice that this community has endured.  Take for example the response of many feminist commentators to the online Proana community, a digital space in which those with eating disorders explore the boundaries of their condition, seek community with one another, and, at times, embrace their conditions as alternative lifestyles.  Digital artist Ivonne Thein recently created an exhibition inspired by an anorexia billboard entitled Thirty-Two Kilos using the Proana aesthetic to highlight the dangers associated with eating disorders.  This exhibition, while intended to raise public awareness about eating disorders, met with an interesting response from many critics.  One typical response can be found on the feminist blog The F-Word:

On one hand I respect an artist’s right to their passion and subject matter choice and I appreciate Thein’s intention with this exhibit.  And as an artist and photographer myself, I also admire the flawlessness of the digital manipulation here.  But I am also an eating disorders awareness activist and I also have to question the extreme disconnect between Thein’s images’ intention and the ways in which the exhibit will be interpreted by the mass audience.  The edgy, couture nature of the photographs gives no sense of abject horror deserving of anorexia.  Thein’s exhibit might get a brief tsk-tsking about the dangers of anorexia but its lasting legacy will be more to serve as thinspirational images for girls and others hellbent on self-destruction.
The author’s fear seems to be that perhaps those within the Proana community might appropriate these images on their websites.  Certainly Proana websites have already incorporated Thein’s work for “subversive” purposes.  Yet the core of the criticism reveals a disturbing component of the abjection directed at eating disorders.  Consider the possibility that this is your body.  To speak through the image of Thirty-Two Kilos is to speak with an unauthorized, and hence non-, voice coded as inherently inauthentic and diseased.  Rather than engage such voices, the response has been systematic and widespread censorship to a degree very few online communities have experienced.  Speech is thus a near impossibility for the eating-disordered person unless she uses legitimate vocabularies.  As a non-being, First Amendment rights do not apply to her.


In her work on the continued resistance to gay marriage among many conservatives, Martha Nussbaum (2010) argues that, in face of all reasoned arguments, the core of this resistance is an irrational disgust that is driven by fear of cultural contamination.  This fear of contamination, gay to straight, unconventional families, sex-organs being misused etc., drives the continued push to deny basic civil liberties to large portions of the population.  Because the images displayed in Thirty-Two Kilos are not “disgusting” or “horrible” the exhibit can become a vehicle for spreading the disease.  To speak from an eating-disordered body is by definition to speak from a position that becomes a conduit for the spread of these conditions.  It is not the image itself that the blogger objects to, but the potential that it might be appropriated and used to bring unauthorized voices into existence.  The question is not whether one supports groups like Proana or should or should not watch movies with thin actors, but whether projecting the eating-disordered person as a two-dimensional symptom of the patriarchy that must be silenced is necessarily the best strategy for dealing with these conditions.  Recent social scientific research has demonstrated that these conditions are now among the most highly stigmatized among all mental health concerns (Roehrig and Mclean 2010).  Given that eating-disordered individuals exist in a climate of growing hostility, their continued isolation and silence is a direct product of this cultural backlash.  If she is nothing but an inherently superficial non-being, then she does not deserve the right to speak.  Websites discussing eating-disordered experience are censored and shut down not only in America; France is currently considering legislation to criminalize any such activity on the web. Burke might caution us to pause at the threshold of this delineation and reflect upon the impacts of this type of redemptive quarantine.

In her analysis of the vocabularies that represent anorexia within the psychoanalytic community, Judith Hepworth (1999) proposed that the doctor/patient, wellness/disease relationship that has defined anorexia should be revised and the anorexic granted a voice.  She writes, “For a group of people diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, such as anorexia nervosa, the shift in bureaucratic organization towards participation creates opportunities for them to move beyond the position of patients and become part of the state-citizen relationship” (127).  From a Burkeian perspective it may be time to explore the possibility of creating a new terministic screen through which the eating-disorder community can coalesce.  In his exploration of Burke’s political potential Richard Gregg writes, “The ability we have to engage in symbolic reversal manifests itself in a myriad of ways.  It means we can manipulate symbols in order to achieve a transposition of meaning, substitution, transformation, reduction and production, ambiguity, analytic and dialectical processing, transcendence, and more” (194-195).  Robert Wess further notes that Burke plays a key role in understanding the juncture between the historically determined subject and the creation of strategic spaces through which the political agent can maneuver.  Hepworth’s use of the term “citizen” is telling because it demonstrates a recognition that eating disorders such as anorexia have been deprived of certain forms of personhood that have been accorded to other groups.  If she is nothing but a product of patriarchal objectification, she neither possesses nor deserves a voice.  From this standpoint, feminist scholarship, which did so much to enlighten and inform therapeutic approaches to eating disorders, became one of the primary movers driving these conditions underground and perpetuating a cultural stigma that continues to define the experience of eating disordered people and communities today.


It must be noted that the observations of many feminist authors have been crucial in making inroads into better understanding of and managing eating disorders.  Yet the key juncture in history traced in the present study saw a systematic shift from models that promoted empathy and sought to empower individuals to ones that dehumanized them.  Perhaps one explanation for the presentation of the eating-disordered woman as anti-feminist agent can be found in the relationship many of these authors adopted toward their subject matter.  While early authors such as Chernin, Wolf, and Orbach worked directly with eating-disordered patients or revealed within their own work that they themselves had struggled with these conditions, influential later authors had no such reference points.  Within this cultural model people simply became extensions of ideological systems and once this turn is made the flesh and blood behind the image can go unseen and unheard.  In many ways eating-disordered individuals function as effective scapegoats because they can be projected as a benign element that is never completely purged (Carter 1996).  The projection of the eating-disordered individual as an inauthentic, failed woman has become so commonplace in the academic and popular culture that she has been reduced to a stereotype.  This allows for continual repetitions of rejections where she is negated in an endless regress.  Such a perfecting impulse does not seek to annihilate her, but to contain her outside the borders of voice and reason.

To some extent, Burke reveals that liberatory models are highly susceptible to dramatic perfection and transformation through negation.  The ongoing salience of Burke is that his framework reawakens our understanding that these symbolic manipulations are connected to individuals through the motive drive and that these rituals are not abstractions, but lived material conditions.  The amplification in intensity and prevalence of eating disorders during the past two decades is a vivid demonstration of the salience of this observation.  As isolation and stigma increase, those with these conditions are less likely to seek treatment.  The reverberations of eating-disordered negation have echoed through the past two decades as these individuals have been subject to a level of stigma unseen in their history and to a higher degree of shame than those diagnosed with any contemporaneous mental health condition.  Burke warned us to mind how these symbolic dynamics shape the social topography upon which all people live and the oppositions that are manufactured to divide and isolate those against whom we attempt to establish our own sense of authenticity and empowerment.  In the case of the cultural construction of the eating disorders, this warning has gone unheeded.

*Stephanie Houston Grey, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Culture in the Department of Communication Studies at Louisiana State University. She can be contacted via email at houston@lsu.edu.

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Kilbourne, Jean.  Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising.  New York: Free Press, 1999.

Lelwica, Mary Michelle.  Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems Among American Girls and Women.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Lester, Rebecca.  “The Disembodied Self in Anorexia Nervosa.”  Social Scientific Medicine 44 (1997): 479-89.

Nicki, Andrea.  “The Abused Mind: Feminist Theory, Psychiatric Disability, and Trauma.”  Hypatia 16.4 (2001): 80-104.

Nussbaum, Martha.  From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.

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

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"A Perfect Loathing: The Feminist Expulsion of the Eating Disorder" by Stephanie Houston Grey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Kenneth Burke’s Pedagogy of Motives

William Cahill


This paper clarifies Burke's ideas on education in his 1955 essay entitled "Lingusitic Approach to Problems of Education" and relates it to the context and circumstances to which Burke was responding at the time of that essay.  The papers shows Burke's writing as an expression of his characteristic position as a thinker, that is as a responsive dialogist who used it as a tool of invention.  Using archival materials from the Kenneth Benne papers at the University of Vermont, the paper tells the story of Burke’s essay and his relation to the key ideas in educational theories at the mid-point of the 20th century.

THE FIRST TIME I OPENED a copy of Modern Philosophies and Education and began to read Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education,” I was doubly intrigued by two facts of the publication that I thought I should perhaps be ignoring: one was the fact of Burke appearing in such a book at all, and the other was the footnote on his essay’s first page indicating that Burke had an “Educational Consultant” for his work on the essay, a professor at Boston University named Kenneth Benne.  It appeared the relationship might have been substantive in a way that was important to the development of ideas in the essay, since Burke quoted a long passage from his correspondence with Benne in its opening pages, noting a disagreement and making it important to his argument.  How did Kenneth Burke, who was such an idiosyncratic writer, I wondered, use this collaboration, and how did Burke get into this 1955 publication in philosophy of education, which brought about the collaboration, in the first place?  Burke’s quotation in the essay from Benne’s letter piqued my curiosity about the nature of Benne’s “consultancy” in the project and about what else the two might have said in their behind-the-scenes exchange that might shed light on the meaning of Burke’s “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education.”

Kenneth Burke’s work had appeared in social science journals in the 1930s and 1940s and later and he published a few essays in the Journal of General Education; but his appearance in Modern Philosophies and Education seemed quite different, putting him in company with mainstream educational theorists, who were the volume’s editors, and it was a unique appearance in such a context by Burke.  Not only had Burke not published before in a book or journal of educational theory, but Modern Philosophies and Education was a volume bringing together the work of different “general philosophers,” as its introduction says, for the insights philosophy might provide to education, and Burke was no more likely to have written or delivered papers as an academic philosopher in this period than as an educational theorist.  Though Dramatism could be called a philosophy and there were people who regarded it as such in the period, it was still a stretch to call it a “general philosophy” in the sense implied by the Yearbook’s editorial committee, which brought together in the volume the main philosophies studied in academic departments of the day—Thomism, Pragmatism, Realism, etc.  Burke’s philosophy was not studied in this way at that time, and it was also distinguished by being a philosophy—if it was one at all—with only its philosopher, rather than a school, as its source of texts others could read or develop the philosophy further from.  How did Burke come to appear in this book whose other writers, with one exception, were professors of philosophy in universities and one a professor of education?[1]

Burke’s education essay has been recognized by other writers as a crucial part of his oeuvre, written at a period when he was producing essays on poetics for his projected “Symbolic of Motives,” which William H. Rueckert has argued “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” should be considered part of (Rueckert 2007). In this sense Burke’s essay has a meaning integral with his theory of Dramatism and complete in this sense without the meaning it might have had for educational theory at the time it was written, obscurely suggested in the footnote on its first page naming Kenneth Benne as Burke’s “consultant” for the article.  An astute reader might well understand Burke’s idea in its own terms from the text of “Linguistic Approach” itself, and a reader who knew Burke’s Dramatism might understand the way “Linguistic Approach” works out the themes of that philosophy.  But reading the essay in its original educational context, in the sort of “behind-the-scenes” reading I shall attempt here, reveals a resonance in the article with ideas of education that further brings out the clarity and point of Burke’s thought.

Kenneth Burke was a responsive as well as an original writer; his characteristic habit was to follow his intuitions as his starting point, but to work out their expressions at least partly as responses to the intellectual life of his time and place.  His inclusion of a letter he received from Benne in the first pages of “Linguistic Approach” and his summary there of things Benne had done with or written about Dramatism suggest that “Linguistic Approach” was no exception to this pattern.  Burke’s educational idea in “Linguistic Approach” might seem to be one that he spun out as a web from his own characteristic resources, but reading it in the context of his invitation to write for Modern Philosophies and Education, which called on its contributors to address an agenda of contemporary interests in education, and of the further exchange he and Kenneth Benne undertook as part of the process of producing the article, brings out this aspect of Burke’s character quite clearly.  This is not to say that the ideas of “Linguistic Approach” came from anywhere but in Burke’s idea of Dramatism, but that their expression and clarification had much to do with his responsiveness to the particular occasion of being asked to write an essay for the editors of Modern Philosophies and Education.

The biographical footnote accompanying Burke’s essay in Modern Philosophies and Education is thus not a mere ornamental niche in the labyrinth of its author’s ideas, but a back-passage worth following, a work-space where the inventor put together some of the devices his command performance traded on.

Burke’s development of his Dramatistic idea for education in this context was deeply relevant to several important contemporary ideas in educational theory, a fact that makes his transformation of them in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” all the more interesting.  The present essay attempts to spell out the history of Burke’s insight with a reading of “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” in light of the editorial aims of Modern Philosophies and Education and of the full written exchange of ideas Burke and Kenneth Benne engaged in about it, which is found in the rest of Benne’s letter and Burke’s written response to it, both of which are preserved in the Kenneth Benne Papers at the University of Vermont.

Modern Philosophies and Education,1955

Each philosopher writing in Modern Philosophies and Education, the 1955 Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (Henry 1955, p. 259-303), was to have an “educational collaborator” appointed by the Yearbook’s editors, who chose this person as “someone from the field of educational philosophy whose system of thought was as nearly sympathetic to that of the contributor as possible.”  The grammar of this statement from the Yearbook’s introduction, written by John S. Brubacher, makes it seem as though the philosopher-contributor was chosen first and the “collaborator” was then matched to him.  The work of the “educational collaborator” would be to help the “general philosopher,” who might be somewhat familiar with education as a field of study through teaching in a university, to work out the implications of his theory for secondary and elementary education, “the lower rungs of the educational ladder.”

But in fact Kenneth Benne, Burke’s “collaborator,” knew Burke’s work well more than a decade before the Yearbook was published.  Benne had made use of Burke’s Dramatism in coauthoring with a team of educational theorists a 1943 book entitled The Discipline of Practical Judgment, which designed a model for pragmatic adult deliberation on public issues.  The Discipline of Practical Judgment (re-titled The Improvement of Practical Intelligence in its 1950 reprint and subsequent editions) was a key text in the educational theory known as Social Reconstruction that became prominent in this period.  This book was about the social dynamics of democratic decision-making and it used ideas from poetics, including some of Kenneth Burke’s, to formulate its theory of deliberation as an essentially dramatic experience.  It was a key text in the new formulation of progressive education at the time.  Brubacher, in his own essay in Modern Philosophies and Education, mentions the concern among some educators about the reprise and reformulation of progressive education at midcentury as a topic for which the insight of general philosophers of the volume might help to address (Henry 1955, p. 7 and passim). Benne’s inclusion in the Yearbook represents one side of this interest and, as the present essay will show, Burke’s development of his own ideas contributes to the now nearly forgotten drama of that concern.   Benne had also written a review of Burke’s A Grammar of Motives in 1947 (Benne 1947) and he had used some of Burke’s ideas in his 1951 essay, “Education for Tragedy” (Benne 1951, p. 269-71) which Burke mentions in the “Bibliographical Note” at the end of “Linguistic Approach.”  In his correspondence with Benne, Burke mentions an earlier discussion the two writers had on the occasion of Benne’s writing that paper.  Thus the two writers had an intellectual relationship before the invitation to Burke to write for Modern Philosophies and Education with Benne as its “Educational Consultant.”

Burke mentions these connections with Benne in “Linguistic Approach.”  I will discuss them further along here in more theoretical detail, as they are important to understanding Burke’s development of his position in his article.

This background of Benne’s interest in Dramatism shows something of the aptness of Modern Philosophies and Education’s matching of Burke and Benne and suggests that Benne was responsible for bringing Burke into Modern Philosophies and Education.  The editorial agenda of the volume suggests that each “general philosopher” it included was an obvious or natural choice and that the consultant was then sought to provide help.  But in fact Dramatism was not generally studied in philosophy departments at universities at the time, as were the other philosophies represented in the volume, and the choice of Burke was thus most likely an expression of Benne’s prior interest in Dramatism, which would have been equally unfamiliar to professors of education as to academic philosophers at the time.  But while Benne’s theoretical interest in Burke’s Dramatism goes a long way to explain Burke’s selection as a contributor to the Yearbook, Burke’s development of his ideas in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” also vindicates his selection in the astuteness with which it addresses primary concerns of the Yearbook itself.

Brubacher had set out what he saw and the essential concerns or “anxieties” about education in the public and among educational theorists at the time, which included concern about the ideological neutrality of educational methods, having universal standards for knowledge, the role of religion in education, and the worry many people felt that education at the time was “adrift without a rudder.”  Burke’s essay addresses these concerns, sometimes obliquely but sometimes head on.  Brubacher added to his list several other themes that were particularly important to Kenneth Burke: the relation of secularization to modern society and the relation of modern learning to religion; the possibility of a “neutral” basis for education and of the discovery of “ultimate and perennial” goals of education; and the possibility of social philosophy taking the lead in guiding education.  The oddness in finding Kenneth Burke in Modern Philosophies and Education further dissolves when these mutual interests are taken into consideration and the interest of Burke’s essay increases when seen in this context.  This close relation of Burke’s thought to the interests of the Yearbook, and the unique turn he gives to his argument in view of them, are important to understanding “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” and its original context. 

Burke’s Educational Argument

Burke affirms his idea of the goals of education in three related expressions, each deeply implicated in the theoretical character of Dramatism.  He says education should aim to give the student a “terminology” for the interpretation of representative human motives, which are the same in life situations and in poetic texts; that it should eventuate in a “sophisticated and methodized set of parables, or fables”; and that it should prepare students for seeing through the “clutter of machinery, both technological and administrative, which civilization has amassed in its attempts to live well.”  Education, Burke says, should accomplish the latter by cultivating a sense of “the ironic nature of the human species” (Henry 1955, p. 269, 270, 271). By this he means a sense of the way the solutions people devise for problems tend to become counter-productive or to rob their devisers of the kinds of satisfactions they might have thought they were preparing.  This is Burke’s basic view of the irony of symbolic inventiveness.  The educational program Burke offers to meet these aims would then be negative and “admonitory,” and in this sense it distinguishes itself from the progressive, melioristic approach advocated by various educational theorists of the time.

Burke predicates “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” on a dialectical pair of terms, “appreciation” and “admonition,” which he expects should work together as elements of a process of learning from texts.  “Admonition” is the complementary attitude mimicking the work of the negative in the original production of texts the reader would tend to appreciate.  The reader, in Burke’s view, feels positive appreciation for a text in admiring its technical achievement, but the work has itself been generated by a negative principle, which is its exclusion from its symbolic arrangement of anything that would contradict its fidelity to a social pattern or order that its language presses it to represent.  According to Burke, texts in their aesthetic forms represent social and moral proprieties that make them acceptable to their public audiences.  Burke regards the creative process as a selection of means influenced by the negative, by the tacit exclusion of things that would not seem acceptable—things that would not “satisfy desires” in the audience, which are in the first place socially-set motivations.  What there is to appreciate in a text, then, has been generated in part by the negative and this negative principle is hidden in the workings of the text.  The same would be true for life situations, which form according to symbolic principles they have in common with poetry—a principle Burke developed in his earlier writings, including Permanence and Change, published in 1935.  A key thing Burke wants students to learn is how to recognize these implicit negatives and the way he suggests they might do that is by turning appreciation into a new negative, “admonition,” to be used as a critical and educational principle to prevent being swept up into complete identification with the positive social order a text symbolically upholds.

The key pedagogic device Burke offers in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” is his practice of reading by “indexing,” which he thought disclosed the symbolic associations of meaning that formed texts, especially ones connected with the representation of social hierarchy, superiority, and inequality.  The point of this “indexing” is to discover these symbolic relations.  By “indexing,” Burke believes, students would learn to discover how a text makes certain elements equal ‘socially superior’,” and others something different (Henry 1955, p, 271), so that the social representation the text symbolizes will work in a way that is consistent with the hierarchical image society imposes on things.  “Indexing” would disclose this symbolic tendency, as well as many others necessary to the transformation of common meanings into new symbolic structures in texts.  The persuasiveness of texts tended, Burke thought, to bring readers into acceptance of social representations that might include schemes of value that should not be accepted uncritically, and learning to make these critical discriminations would be essential to education, in his view.  “Indexing” would disclose them and learning to study texts in this way would be a special task for schooling.

Texts in Burke’s Dramatistic view assume form and meaning by combining motives from their author’s social realm with “intrinsic” motives brought to the text by language.[2]  While the words of a text have personal meanings for their author, as well as meanings from other contexts, they embody in their poetic arrangement in the text the social idea of order the author implicitly buys into and represents in the work, from his or her own social orientation.  This is what Burke calls the “socioanagogic” function of language.  However complete their devotions to art or truth, texts are expressions of the language available to their authors, which is saturated with social values, including the ones that represent hierarchical power and unless readers have ways of recognizing these persuasive “equations,” they will be taken in by them, “appreciatively.”  Thus the need for “admonition.”  As a text must arrange and subordinate its symbolic elements, it represents arrangements of the things in society these elements represent or associate with.  The poetic reader then cannot help in “appreciating” the text also seeing the world through this arrangement of things the text imposes or suggests.

Burke writes: “…there is a pageantry in objects, a ‘socioanagogic’ element imposed upon them, so far as man is concerned, because man necessarily approaches them in accordance with the genius of his nature as a symbol-human species.  Since language is social in the political, administrative sense, the purely physical sociality of nonlinguistic things thus subtly partakes of this purely symbolic spirit, so far as human dealings with ‘nature’ are concerned” (263).  “The purely physical sociality of nonlinguistic things” refers to the real association of things brought about by human imaginative and “administrative” associations.  Thus things come to be perceived together in nature as people imagine them as associations of words in their consciousness.

The specific value of great poetic texts for education, Burke writes, is in the fact that they are “sufficiently complex and mature to be representatives of human motives” (Henry 1955, p. 264). Thus studying them in school would teach the most fundamental patterns of symbolic association, which will be useful in understanding all or any symbolic expression.  The main function of formal education is to teach the student to learn about these beautiful things in a way that allows careful, detached “watching,” rather than immediate moral engagement.  Thus the symbolism of a play might “thunder” in the student’s aesthetic appreciation of it, but in Burke’s scheme the student would be taught to “’appreciate’ man’s ways of thundering” perhaps more than the artistic and persuasive effects experienced in reading the text.  The student’s attention then would be mainly on the discovery of human ways of acting and forming relations in the world as these are represented in poetic language.  The symbolic means thus studied are “absolute,” in Burke’s view—and thus they supply something Brubacher had wondered about in his remarks in the Yearbook, a kind of grounding in truth for education.  The student would be allowed to “appreciate” the aesthetic feeling involved in reading a great text, but only with the “admonition” to look through it to the revelation of symbolic means and their relation to general human motives—the “absolutes”—beneath them that should also be available in this study.  Burke’s sense of “the ironic nature of the human species” is clear in this formulation.  The positive attributes of the study of great texts might be felt in appreciation, a real feeling, but they would not be educational unless they were joined with a sense of their disclosure of something much different at the same time.  Art, then, is a part of the “machinery of civilization,” which disguises human motives in pleasurable ways and the analysis of the disguises reveals not just an understanding of what they are, but a recognition of what they otherwise hide, and, for students, of the ways by which the symbolic hides such things.   And Burke thought all writing had poetic attributes and thus the socioanagogic could structure expression even in texts that were not considered poetic.  The special value of poetic texts for education is in their rich exemplification of symbolic resources.

Burke does not exempt the larger context of study—its institutional context insofar as the institution of school represents a social philosophy—from this ironic requirement.  The Yearbook asked its contributors to address the question of social philosophies and education and Burke treats this topic in a way that follows from the particulars of his argument about what and how students should study.  He suggests that wariness about appreciation should extend to social philosophies because these are positive representations of social order generated in their origins by sets of “thou shall not’s.”  Thus such philosophies are orders for societies made not only for telling people how their lives should be but also as defenses against many things that would seem inappropriate.  Burke specifically addresses his skepticism to the social philosophy undergirding democratic education, which he acknowledges might be the “ideal” state for education, but which he suggests might only be found in “an ideal world of civilized and sophisticated people.”  Democracy is, Burke wrote, “difficult to maintain, except in glimpses and at happy moments” (Henry 1955, p. 284).  Burke is not preferring some other social philosophy to democracy, but discounting its offering and suggesting that because it is too often not held as a governing principle some other basis must be found for education.  What Burke claims “actually happens in education” is that the democratic and three other general kinds of social philosophy—“training,” “partisanship,” and “humanitarian” authority—tend to mingle with the democratic principle “fluctuantly” (Henry 1955, p. 284). Thus, some advance preparation from a different sort of absolute basis must be necessary.

Burke wanted to equip students for solving in their lives the problem of being duped by beautiful works (and ideas) that were less than perfect in their transcendence of the social norms their words embodied.  He thought a period of study of great texts would prepare students for this by teaching them the ways of the symbolic resources of texts, especially their ways of equating values with new associations representing preexistent, preemptive social order.  Students would learn the poetic resources that effected the compromises of moral meaning in texts in studying ones where these compromises could be seen disinterestedly in light of attention to the means themselves and the patterns of human relations they encoded.  The great texts did this in becoming, as it were, Burke thought, obsessively committed to the most complete poetic artistry.

Students would need to see this education as a moment apart from the ordinary business of life, which was taken up with almost incessant formulations of meanings in ways that promoted dominant social values and demanded the necessary compromises along with this promotion.  Education, then, would be a special moment of “temporary withdrawal,” a provisional, Epicurean sort of retreat.  This would not be possible, Burke reasoned, if education were conducted for the aims of a social philosophy, which, in his view, was, like a poetic text, an embodiment of norms that demanded their own compromises.  A retreat from all possibilities of normative compromise was then required in education.  Studying great poetic texts could allow the subject matter to be studied in a way that was immune to such preemptions, but only if the educational scene itself were also thus exempted.

In the processes of “indexing” and other means of studying the symbolic, teachers and students following Burke’s plan would expect that “ ‘Truth’ is absolute, in the sense that one can categorically make assertions about certain basic resources and embarrassments of symbols” (Henry 1955, p. 276).  In other words, the study of symbols in texts would give students knowledge of the “resources and embarrassments of symbols,” a reality that transcended interpretations of meanings in texts (or other forms of expression, or events of life).  Truth, then, was not to be found in appreciation or interpretation (which could be taken as prompts for action), but in learning the ways of symbols in a setting apart from worldly action.  Burke makes the symbolic absolute while recognizing the contingency and persuasiveness of all its uses.  His suggestion that these things could best be learned in a state of “temporary withdrawal” from the persuasiveness of language in society makes the state of “good will” that he theorizes at the end of the essay an impermanent good, known only as an effect of studies that revealed the “socioanagogic” and other “embarrassments” as an object of contemplation rather than a prompt for engagement.  This essential insight sheds light on Burke’s resistance to social philosophies, even the most humane ones, as possible bases for education.  The educational scene must be exempted from engagement.

The aim, Burke writes, “is to droop, at least ad interim (within the special conditions of the educational enterprise, considered as but one stage of a person’s life)—but to droop so methodically, with such an emphasis upon method, that each day can bristle with assertions, as we attempt to perfect our lore of the human scramble (what Goethe calls the Zeitenstrudel, and Diderot the grand branle).” Education, then,

would brood, as with the Flaubert who wrote L’Education Sentimentale.  But in its attempts to perfect a technique of brooding, it would learn to cherish the documents as never before.  No expunging of records here.  All must be kept, and faithfully examined; and not just that it may be approved or disapproved, but also that it be considered a challenge to our prowess in placing it within the unending dialogue as a whole… If we temporarily risk being stopped by such a discipline, let us realize that the discipline is ideally designed precisely to that end…  Education must be thought of as a technique of preparatory withdrawal, the institutionalizing of an attitude that one should be able to recover at crucial moments, all along the subsequent way (Henry 1955, p. 272-3).

Education would place students in a relation to texts that allowed them to map or locate the assertions or affirmations texts made in the general “dialogue” of meanings that continued, without abatement, even as students and teachers needed to find some way to place it on hold while they learned from it.

Burke’s skeptical position in “Linguistic Approach” is the essential one that sets his perspective in all his writings: his belief that subjectivity should transcend social thought, that the world continuously changes and requires personal and social adaptation through the reinvention of expression and ideas, which will use the same devices as the old expressions but in new ways and with new potential embarrassments (George and Selzer 2007).  This wariness trumps all other assertions in Burke’s philosophy.  It is not skepticism for its own sake, but rather an exploitation of caution for the sake of the subjectivity that criticism would enhance and protect.

Burke’s thesis in “Linguistic Approach” – his repositioning of the relation of language study and social philosophy – and its development in the structure of his essay, addressing the Yearbook’s interests, is responsive in a way that was characteristic of Burke.  He wrote from his own insight, but used the intellectual context of his day as its foil, or as material he could rearrange and recast in new expressions that would be in keeping with this insight.  This was Burke’s fundamental idea of what a poet should do (Rueckert 1982, p. 68 and passim) and he made his critical studies in the same way.  The understanding a critical argument could produce would be like the catharsis produced by a work of art, achieved through transformations of familiar materials that were necessary if the original insight was to be held onto in its theoretical embodiment.

Brubacher explained in his introduction that the Yearbook committee had set out criteria or guidelines for the articles in the volume, including the request that they should not only summarize their philosophies but tell how they related to education.  The sections of Burke’s essay were roughly the ones suggested by the editorial committee for all authors contributing to the volume: general philosophical orientation of the writer; educational aims, values, and curriculum; educative process, methods and motivation; school and society; the school and the individual; and religious and moral education (Henry 1955, p.2).  Burke varies this a bit, putting methods and curriculum under “process.”  He also adds an epilogue and a personal bibliography.  The “problems” referred to in Burke’s essay title follow this division generally; they are the problem of orienting education and social philosophy; of restoring language to prominence within the curriculum (which the proliferation of school subjects in some Progressive Education, and perhaps more saliently the scientific and business curricula included under this umbrella term, obscured, Brubacher explained); the problem of making methodology suit a philosophy of education; of making education a help to the individual as well as the society; and of dealing with religion in education.[3]  It is clear that Burke was responding to these interests and using them as prompts for a new expression of his own characteristic ideas.

Ultimately, one of Burke’s key distinctions in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” is in his emphasis, which answers some of the questions Brubacher raises for educational theory in a way that is quite different from the answers provided by some of the leading educational philosophers of the day.   Many of these thinkers saw education as a process of self-understanding and social awareness developed through democratic problem-solving and decision-making.  While Burke’s essay does not directly rebut this leading position in educational theory, it broaches and plays on a critical concern about letting any social philosophy take the lead in understanding.  His emphasis on the moment of “good will” rather than democratic social philosophy as the essential aim of education rearranges many ideas that were important to educational theory at the time and in a way this shows Burke carrying out his own philosophy of the symbolic, since the rearrangement allows him to cast an insight that seems sustaining to him in a new formulation that remake some of the commonly accepted ideas he is given to use. 

The Burke-Benne Correspondence, 1953-56

The whole of the particular letter from Kenneth Benne that Burke excerpts in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” and Burke’s rejoinder to it are preserved in the Kenneth Benne Papers at the University of Vermont.  The full exchange shows Burke at work on “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” in 1953, writing several drafts of the essay and responding to critical questions from Benne on several key points.  Benne’s comments show him pressing Burke for a direct application of his Dramatistic theory to actual human situations, which Burke resists; Burke’s demurral seems a metaphor for the idea of contemplation he theorizes in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education.”  The exchange plays out the implicit argument about formal education and social philosophies Burke develops in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” and shows Burke’s commitment to his subtly different idea and its expression of his characteristic position as a philosophical thinker, i.e., as one who seemed engaged in the intellectual and social ideas of his time, but only to use them as foils for his assertion of an idea that resisted engagement.

The content of these two typed documents shows that they were written after Burke had made a draft of his article but before he produced the final version of it.  Benne’s letter begins “Dear Kenneth Burke,” but Burke’s begins “Replies to Comments by Kenneth D. Benne.”  Both lack dates, addresses, signatures or other signs that they were letters, but the fact that Burke refers to the passage he quotes from Benne in “Linguistic Approach” as from his “correspondence” with “Professor Benne” shows that the Benne text was written as a letter.  Burke’s “Replies” do not look like a letter but its content responds directly to Benne’s comments in the former document, identifying Benne’s comments by the letters Benne had written to list them.  Thus the two documents represent an extended dialogue in correspondence between the two writers about the theme Burke was developing in “Linguistic Approach” before the essay was finalized.[4]

The letters treat, in detail, Benne’s suggestion that Dramatistic analysis might be done in schools not only on poetic texts but also on dramatic events of school life, such as reenactments of conflicts within the school—e.g., “playground fights,” mentioned in the part Burke excerpted in “Linguistic Approach” – and Burke’s rejoinders to these arguments.  Since Burke was a critic as well as a philosopher, it might seem to follow that he would be interested in making Dramatism a basis for the interpretation of real-life experiences, which is what Pragmatism does and what Benne, using Burkean ideas in The Discipline of Practical Judgment, suggested could be done in deliberative social interactions. Benne also wrote about this in his 1947 review of Burke’s A Grammar of Motives.  Burke noted in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” that Benne had there written that Dramatism was not “sufficiently normative, or preferential,” and that it offered only an “implicit” method for interpreting experiences.  Thus Benne was suggesting Burke take his Dramatistic critique a step further and show how it would be used to interpret actions in real time, rather than just texts.  Burke’s responses, like the theory he develops in “Linguistic Approach,” turn on his commitment to finding the symbolic resources themselves first, and it leaves him with a sense that life itself is much less predictable or amenable to improvement than pragmatist-minded thinkers would suggest.  The difference is subtle, but important, and it turns especially on Burke’s idea of “good will” as a moment apart from the fray.  Burke’s difference seems to be in his sense that good will is more valuable than whatever might be achieved in engagement in the wrangle of social relations.  Though he describes this good will in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” as something necessary for learning in school between a teacher and students, it seems to mean something more generally important in Burke’s view of things, as he hints in his remark about democracy as a good to be experienced only “in glimpses and at happy moments.”  Burke is not a pessimist, but he is not an optimist, either.  His thinking is essentially ironic.  This is not to say Benne lacked a keen sense of irony, but his ironic view seemed to push him all the more toward hoping for a method that would obviate waiting too long to know the meanings of actions experienced in the world.

Benne’s interest was in a method for clarifying norms in action, as his question about playground fights indicates, and while Burke’s philosophy was about the interpretation of action, it was not about doing that while an action was happening.  Burke’s insistent demurral is more than an argument against Benne, in that it is a logical premise that pushes him to formulate an idea of “good will” in his educational philosophy.  Benne, in The Discipline of Practical Judgment and elsewhere, attempted to theorize a method for democratic deliberation that would be continuous with the action of society.  But Burke seems to have seen good will as a kind of logical moment that emerged with the possibility of disinterested study of the resources of action and thus as something that was not identical with method and not in itself normative.  Burke was in agreement with Benne that life presents people with emergent situations that have to be interpreted, but his idea of education – and criticism - was to that it could not teach interpretation of experiences as perfectly as it could the symbolic resources of action, which could be learned from the study of great texts.  But Burke also wanted to teach a methodical “brooding,” ironic contemplation apart from action.

In his letter, Benne asks whether Burke hasn’t “prescribed an education which focuses in the analysis and appreciation of pure symbolic action, to the neglect of the important areas of human experience where ‘action’ and ‘motion’ interweave and, ideally at least, attain some working harmony, though not coincidence?”.  Benne notes that a stage drama such as Burke would analyze includes “the interweaving motions of actors, props and scene within the governance of the symbolized characters, roles, plot and lines” and that it is “an enactment under the rule of the dramatist’s language but not limited to the language, written or spoken.”  From this premise Benne asks whether Burke’s analyses shouldn’t include “the whole enactment of the drama as action, as seen, heard, perhaps enacted, not merely to the text as written and read?”.  He asks Burke to consider “the interinvolvements of the language of the dramatic play with the motions of animals and things—both somehow and to some degree fused in its symbolic enactment…” and he asks, “Why limit educational analysis of the symbolic dimension of human action and human relations to the texts of plays, poems, pulp stories or newspaper editorials?”.  He continues:

You mention ‘typical human situations, such as family quarrels, scenes at a business office, lovers during courtship, a public address by a spellbinder, Etc.’[5] Here are enactments which might be analyzed, with or without spontaneous dramatization by students, to develop, at least to reenforce [sic], the basic admonitions and appreciations toward human symbol-using (its folly and grandeur) which you wish to communicate educationally…  I’m certainly not against textual analysis in education.  But I fear if your education in symbolism is limited to textual analysis, the spread of the attitudes developed there to human experiences where symbolic action and animal motion are commingled will hardly take place…  I don’t want just an added course in the curriculum to introduce the student to dramatistic analysis of motivation and action, as you suggest in one place.  I want it to permeate various areas of school experience—after all ‘action’ is to be found, variously commingled with ‘motions,’ throughout ‘human’ experience—by your definition of ‘human’ actually…  True enough, there is a place in education for dramatic texts as test cases.  But is the ‘real world of action…in its entirety so confused and unstable for orderly observation?’[sic]  A play-ground fight, for example, is by no means formless nor so extended or unstable that it cannot be observed.  If it can’t be observed at the time, it can be spontaneously reenacted.  While it might not have all the dramatic ‘compactness’ of the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, the same principles of human symbolic action are present also in the play-ground fight, if your analysis of man is generalizable, and I think it is.  Why not supplement textual analysis, dramatistically, with analysis of the actual ‘dramas of human relations’ in which students are involved?  I think actually some interweaving of ‘text’ and ‘experience’ educationally is more ‘practical’ than relying on either alone.  Wouldn’t you strengthen your position on education by recognizing that there is a place for the study both of pure action and impure action-motion in the test cases of human relations used in schools?

This last idea represents Benne’s position in educational thought and his attempt to fuse it with Burke’s.  Education, Benne thought, has to teach people to study the actions of their lives and it might sometimes have to do so without waiting for a complete course in the ways of symbolic action.  Thus the study of action should “permeate” the actions of school life, Benne argues.  This study could “supplement” the study of texts.  “Permeate” creates a different spatial metaphor from the one Burke had used in theorizing a moment “apart” from the fray and the difference in these devices sums up the different theories in a way.

Burke answers the question about drama being more than its script with comments that turn on the word “watch,” which fits with his idea of “admonition” in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education”:

Everything should be watched, when we are in search for all the adjectives modifying our noun.  But the main concern must be with the text as written, since that is what stays put, and thus gives us the form in conformity with which to develop our terms.  Aristotle, for all the strongly Dramatistic nature of his terminology, considered the written play superior to the play performed, so far as a philosopher’s contemplation of it was concerned.  And perhaps in our way we have come upon a similar consideration (as one might expect, in view of our proposal—as with Cassirer—to transform his ‘rational animal’ into the ‘symbol-using animal.’

Burke’s idea of “brooding” in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” is thus a kind of philosophical contemplation, following Aristotle, not of the eventuation of the symbolic in experience (or in the watched play as an experience), but in considering the verbal form more abstractly.  To the question about using dramas of actual life as subjects for educational analysis Burke responds:

One well might, once he had had the full advantage of fixed forms.  As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what one should do, as one developed cues from clear, formal structures, and then tried one’s terminology on realms not thus perfect.  But there is a notable problem here.  Only accidentally can the comparatively formless incidents of life reveal the finality that is the nearest esthetic equivalent of moral purposiveness.  Or, otherwise put: To discern this element in human relations generally, one must have studied it thoroughly in its most perfect expression, as preserved in great documents—and with such insight in mind, one may catch fragmentary glimpses of such motivation in human incidents generally.

Thus Burke does not completely disagree with Benne, but he insists on the messiness and murkiness of the results that would be obtained from such studies.  The difference seems perhaps only to turn on when these things might be attempted.  “Permeating” and “supplementing” get somewhat different roles in the ultimate plan Burke proposes in “Linguistic Approach,” which separates these things logically if not temporally from the “preparatory” stage he believes formal education should constitute.  But without that, the idea of education working “under the sign of good will” is not a logical necessity.  This means that the difference is a matter of logic, as well as of temporal sequencing in the life of education.

On the question whether Burke’s idea is “limited to” the analysis of texts, Burke reverses the significance of “limit” by making it a “ground” for, rather than a restriction on, understanding:

The project is not ‘limited to’ textual analysis.  It is methodically grounded in textual analysis.  But if, having studied the explicit ‘equations’ in a book, one next proceeds by asking himself what equations seem to be implicit in a given man’s conduct, though we grant that the answer to the second question will be more problematical, we cannot see why a training in the first question should confine us to that comparatively sharper realm.  Why should it not, rather, help us to consider the full range of possible problems?

Contemplation, if that is what Burke sees as the means of education, aims at perceiving as widely as possible, which is only possible by a kind of abstraction or separation from the details of actual events.  This contemplation is then a prelude to criticism of actual life situations.  Burke explains:

Perhaps we should specifically note, at some point, that the study of formal drama is as near as we can come to ideal conditions of Dramatistic observation for subject-matter of this sort; yet, once the principles have been developed from such a realm, they can and should be applied mutatis mutandis to the hazards of life in general (with new observations doubtless being derived from the shift in subject-matter).  Indeed, the whole purpose of the Dramatistic perspective is to make the step from the observation of action and attitude under the ‘laboratory conditions’ of the mature and complete symbolic act of art, to the observation of action and attitude in human relations generally.  But as we have said before, the principles of completion are hard to discern in most haphazard incidents, unless we have been trained to see them—and training for such perception is best developed by the contemplation of perfected forms…  As for the ‘spontaneous reenacting’ of some agon in life itself: The new modes of recording (as motion pictures with sound) would seem best for the conditions of observation here.  A playground fight that happened to have been recorded (that is, ‘written down’ in our newest modes of ‘writing’) would be capable of endless reenactment for purposes of study—but it is hard to understand how any other kind of ‘spontaneous reenactment’ would be possible.

Burke is concerned about clear recognition and learning from “the principles of completion,” which he thinks can only be fully learned in textual study – and, in fact, only in the study of great texts.  But Benne had pressed his concern in his letter about bringing the knowledge to be gained from poetic study to bear on questions of action in the world where people must make choices even if the results appear uncertain.  He is interested especially in the educational potential of the “ordeal of choice” that “committed action” brings to life experiences, and in ways of making this potential part of formal education.  Benne’s letter says:

That such detached analysis [as Burke theorizes for education] has a place I would gladly agree.  And that it is typically neglected in education I would also agree.  My question is whether the analysis must eventually be related to an actual choice, the tentative and inner wisdom gleaned through dramatistic analysis tested in some sort of committed action, in order to complete the therapy, to complete the educational act of seeking wisdom about something…  Somehow the ordeal of choice and action is necessary to complete the purchase of wisdom, if for no other reason than to expose the folly of what was gained during the withdrawal from the heat of action, during the circumlocutions preparatory to the purchase.

Burke’s answer to Benne’s question about education as an “ordeal” turns on the tragic theme implicit in the word:

There is formal education, and there is the kind of education we read of in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, education in life itself.  Education in life itself is essentially ‘tragic,’ in the sense that we learn by suffering (ta pathemata ta mathemata).  This process is attenuated in formal education, in that we learn by studious effort, which has its ‘pain’ as well as its gratifications and promises.  One may call this a stage of attenuated tragedy, if one thinks of the effort involved; or one may call it attenuated comedy, if one thinks of the ‘unmasking’ that goes with this view of human genius.  And insofar as the comic unmasking of human symbol-using in general brings us face to face with a glimpse into the abyss stretching beyond men’s social and linguistic motives (as per last sentence of Permanence and Change), comedy itself takes on tragic dimensions.  Clearly, we are here at the point Socrates faced at the end of the Symposium, when after an all-night session he said that the genius of comedy was the same as the genius of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy, too.  To this, we are told, the other symposiasts were ‘constrained to assent, being drowsy, and not quite following the argument.’  Start with tragedy, and its solemnities; then the educative study of its methods is comedy; but follow comedy through ‘to the end of the line,’ and there again looms tragedy.  We would consider ‘comedy’ the better name for the lot, however, since we are concerned with secular education—and we would consider religious education closer to a preponderantly ‘tragic’ emphasis.

Thus, the “withdrawal” Burke affirms in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” makes possible a comic tone for study in the ‘unmasking’ of the truth of the human condition that education could make possible.  The irony of Burke’s play on the words comic and tragic represents the essentially ironic interest he would have education cultivate.  Tragedy’s “religious” orientation would bring in another form of contemplation, focused on the metaphysical rather than on the real processes of experience Burke was interested in studying.  As he says in “Linguistic Approach,” such things could be studied in the way great texts would be, for their disclosures of symbolic resources, rather than as beliefs.

Burke agrees that the separation of action and motion might limit the Dramatistic perspective, but he sees a special advantage in this limitation: “Unquestionably,” it will, he writes, continuing:

Though ‘Dramatism’ is here being offered as the approach favored by one advocate, the principle would undergo many changes, insofar as others chose to exemplify it explicitly (as many have done, throughout the past, implicitly).  It is possible, however, that the approach to all life in terms of a book to be deciphered is not confined to literary critics, but is a Grand Metaphor well worthy of all education, once education has passed beyond the stage of mere primitive example to the stage of sophisticated, verbalized precept.  However, though one might ask that the Dramatistic perspective permeate all ‘areas of school experience,’ in such cases it best makes itself felt by systematically trying to exclude itself.  Thus, it studies the terminologies of motion in the effort to disclose any purely symbolic dimensions that may cast doubt on the absolute reality of the supposedly ‘objective’ observations.”

Burke’s educational goal, then, was “sophisticated, verbalized precept” – in other words, a precept of language that would not derive naively from interpretations, or accept interpretation as the form or precept education should resolve itself in.  Rather, education’s “sophisticated, verbalized precept” should, Burke believes, derive from the structures of experiential meaning to be seen and learned by looking further into texts than interpretation would see, not from these meanings themselves.  As Susan Sontag – who read Burke – put it, the focus of reading might work better if it were “against interpretation,” that is, against the moral drawn by teachers and traditions of reading from texts, and more on appreciative attention to how these texts represented social meanings.  The source of the methodology would then not be important except in its delivery of this knowledge.  Even Dramatism, then, the source of Burke’s methodology for education, should see itself as dispensable, alerting students and teachers to the possibility that their observations might be influenced by the dramas of their perceptions and so would not really disclose truth objectively.

But Benne’s interest was in the intrusion of action or real-life drama into the educational scene anyway, since the moment or place of retreat Burke describes could not occupy the whole of the educational scene.  He had argued in his letter from the premise that problematic life situations will always intervene in education and cannot be conveniently separated from study, which was a key principle in his educational theory.  Education, he argued, should teach people to learn from the “continuity” of life and formal study that these experiences bring to it:

You mention [Benne wrote to Burke] the hope that ‘formal’ education will have its uses, after it is over, as its products[6] withdraw for analytic contemplation of man and his actions in the post-educational turmoil of actual life.  I would hope for this too but I would hope that the fruits of the withdrawal, both its admonitory and appreciative ones, might permeate the periods of scramble in between withdrawals, might reduce some of its formlessness, ugliness, and meaninglessness.  If, in education, attention is not given to the continuities, as well as the discontinuities between detached symbolic action and the choices which shape the minglings of motions and half-formed actions in the bulk of human experience, the gap between the two worlds of the intellectual and the practical will be widened, rather than bridged.  Plato’s dream of the intellectuals taking over the power of the state is a mad one—perhaps undesirable.  But can the intellectual come to share, along with the administrative, political and public-relations wielders of powerful symbols, in the shaping of the symbolic constructions that govern men, say no and yes to their choices and aspirations [sic].  If collaboration is the goal, and it certainly isn’t an unmixed good and under some conditions is treason to the intellectuals’ craft of detached manipulation of symbols and symbolic constructions, shouldn’t the goal influence the shape and character of the educational program?  Intellectuals need to become more political in order that politicoes [sic] may possibly become more intellectual.

 The relation of education and politics is theorized by Benne as what John Dewey called “continuity,” which Benne believes should be a key occasion for learning and for the resistance or reconstruction of ideas by everyone for whom they become problems.  Benne wants to avoid the logic of Plato’s “mad dream” of intellectuals taking control of society, but not the possibility of intellectual learning being of help to society, which he thought required a democratic process.  He is pointing out here something he thinks is missing in Burke’s scheme, the collaboration of adults in thinking through problems in a world where the possibility of philosopher kings telling them what it is wise to do in problematic situations is but a “mad dream.”  Burke does not reject this as a real problem, but he cannot accept the moment of contemplation as a mere tool.  Instead, his principle of “temporary withdrawal” is a kind of Epicurean-inspired contemplation, a logical interlude in the drama of education, which could be reprised at any time in their lives by those who had experienced and learned it in their youth, and perhaps the highest good in education and the situations of learning it prepares us for.

Burke’s Difference

Burke summarized his differences with Benne in brief remarks in a letter he wrote to Hugh Dalziel Duncan on August 20, 1953, just after he completed the manuscript for “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education.”  The difference, as he saw it, was in their different senses of human nature, in spite of Benne’s agreement with much of Burke’s Dramatistic analysis of human relations. Burke notes in his letter to Duncan, “my chapter is now with him [Kenneth Benne], plugging hard for the ‘Dramatistic’ view of man as the ‘symbol-using animal,’ and for an educational program based on that definition.”  Burke continued: “But he [Benne] himself, meanwhile, has sent me the outline of a project for a book built around ‘man the chooser,’ so I may not fare so well by the choice.  I would, of course, maintain that ‘choice’ in the human sense is but an aspect of the yes-no bizz in general (that fully human choices, in other words, require a preparatory course in symbol-using), but I don’t know whether that will seem cogent to someone who has opted for a different essence.  I don’t know…” (ellipsis in the original).[7]

These remarks condense Burke’s difference with Benne to its essential element, a difference in their definitions of human nature.  The symbolic is for Burke the human difference in the world, the essential character of human nature; being human is then not essentially about being a “chooser,” though human action involves choices.  Burke’s philosophy recognizes action – implying continuous choosing – as the main substance of human relations, but his theory includes a way of being at least temporarily apart from the fray of action, as a human possibility of good.  Benne’s “man the chooser” makes an existential fact about human life its defining character, which is a mistake Burke seems to think;  his own “the symbol-using animal” would be an essential definition, which produces the existential fact of people having to understand their symbolic nature in order to make good choices in the actions it generates.

The logic in Burke’s concern over this seems to be that the definition should not indicate the ethical good, which is something to be added to the given quality of life by theory and contemplation, not something springing from human nature.  “Man-the-chooser” is a construct that sees human beings as essentially rational, since choice implies rationality.  But seeing humans as essentially symbol-users does not imply an essential rationality in their nature, unless this can somehow be discovered in reflecting critically on this symbolic nature and what people do with it.  The rational, or critical, for Burke, might be something that distinguishes humans, but it is not their essential nature Burke discusses this briefly in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education,” again in response to Brubacher (Henry 1955, p. 260).  In his correspondence with Benne he remarks, “I do wince at the thought of passing up the tie-up with Professor Brubacher’s reference to the classical definition of man as “rational animal.”[8]  This is important because Burke’s quarrel with the definition “rational animal” represents his essential difference from Benne’s pragmatic-deliberative approach to understanding education, which held that in the processes of their inter-relations, even when these are simulated or improvised for the purposes of study, people could learn what they needed to know in order to solve social problems and make good moral decisions.  This was the idea Benne and his colleagues had developed in The Improvement of Practical Intelligence.  Burke’s concern is that the meanings of human actions follow a rhetoric of social control through uses of language that disguise the requirements of the dominant social order in everyday terms, in social action as in poetry, though not with the same “perfection” and transcendence of power motives in the latter as in the former.

Since 1955, educational thought has taken up something like Burke’s interest in recognizing that talk in classrooms often imposes predominant social values on students, often or usually without much awareness by the students or the teacher.  Critical theorists (in some ways the intellectual legatees of Kenneth Benne’s Social Reconstruction) have recognized the role of institutions such as schools in inculcating such values in social action.  These ideas are in keeping with what Burke thought and with what he said in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” in 1955, as well as in other writings.  The fact that Burke recognized this possibility when he did makes his “Linguistic Approach” seem like a forerunner of these notions, or at least logically akin to them.  But Burke’s theory remains unique in asserting that only a position outside social philosophy could give students the critical resources they need for recognizing and understanding the persuasiveness of the dominant social order around them, and it is unique in its way of affirming “good will” as the logically best “sign” for education to operate under.  This would mean that only through such relations as could be called “relations of good will” could teachers and students really learn how to interpret the messages of their social world – and this would include messages of social philosophies, including the ones that seemed most persuasive or most good, and presumably also ones adopted by schools as social institutions.  “Good will,” then, is the real logical upshot of “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education.”[9]

* William Cahill is an independent scholar who is affiliated with the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University.  He can be contacted via email at wcahill7@gmail.com.


1 The other exception was Ralph Harper, Director of the Council for Religion in Independent Schools.

2 Burke had worked out his theory of indexing in several essays including “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method” published in The Hudson Review IV (Summer 1951), p. 165-203 and “Ethan Brand: A Preparatory Investigation,” 1952, in The Hopkins Review V (Winter 1952), p. 45-65.

3 “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” suggests making theology a subject for Dramatistic study in school, though Burke notes that there would be social obstacles to treating religion as a textual or linguistic matter only, pp. 296-7.

4 The Benne document I cite and quote here begins, “Dear Kenneth Burke”; the Burke one has the numbered running head “Replies to Kenneth Benne.”  Both are in the Kenneth Benne papers in the Special Collections of the Gail W. Bailey/David W. Howe Library at the University of Vermont. 

5 Benne is referring here to Burke’s discussion of these things in his 1935 book, Permanence and Change.

6 I.e., graduates or adults using what they learned in school.

7Burke to Duncan, August 20, 1953, original in Kenneth Burke Papers, University of Pennsylvania Libraries.  In this letter, Burke refers to Benne as “my mentor, or consultant, or whatever, as regards my chapter for the proposed N.S.S.E. Yearbook (for which I uphold the ‘The Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education’).”

8 Kenneth Burke “Replies to Benne – 11,” op. cit.

9 In reprinting “What Are the Signs of What? A Theory of Entitlement” in his 1968 collection, Language as Symbolic Action, Burke notes that it was a paper originally given at the Human Relations Center at Boston University in 1953.  Papers in the Burke and Benne archives show that Benne had invited Burke to present a paper on that occasion and that Burke wrote “What Are the Signs?” for that occasion, which was the Boston University Founder’s Day conference for that year.  The letters show Burke and Benne’s professional relation continuing from 1953, when Burke began “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education,” at least until 1956.

Works Cited

Benne, Kenneth D. (January 1947). “Toward a Grammar of Educational Motives: An Article Review.” Educational Forum, p. 233-9. 

Benne, Kenneth D. (November and December 1951). “Education for Tragedy” Educational Theory.

Brubacher, John S.  (1955). “The Challenge to Philosophize about Education.” In Modern Philosophies and Education: The Fifty-fourth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Edited by Nelson B. Henry. Chicago: Published by the Society and distributed by University of Chicago Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1955).  “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education.” In Modern Philosophies and Education: The Fifty-fourth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Edited by Nelson B. Henry. Chicago: Published by the Society and distributed by University of Chicago Press.

Burke, Kenneth. (2007). Essays Toward A Symbolic of Motives 1950-1955. Edited by William H. Rueckert.  West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press.

George, Ann and Jack Selzer. (2007). Kenneth Burke in the 1930. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Henry,Nelson B. (ed.). (1955). Modern Philosophies and Education: The Fifty-fourth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago: Published by the Society and distributed by University of Chicago Press.

Kenneth Benne Papers, Special Collections, Bailey/Howe Library, University of Vermont.

Kenneth Burke Papers, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Rueckert, William H. (1982). Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations. Second edition. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press

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"Kenneth Burke’s Pedagogy of Motives" by William Cahill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

"Where Human Relations Grandly Converge": The Constitutional Dialectic of Hizb ut-Tahrir

Drew Loewe, Saint Edwards University


I argue that a sub-area of Burkean criticism should be developed using Burke’s constitutional dialectic to examine constitutions as the primary objects of study. To demonstrate the possibilities of this strain of criticism, I use Burke’s constitutional dialectic to examine the draft constitution for an Islamic state urged by the worldwide movement Hizb ut-Tahrir. In that document, internal conflicts and differences, not to mention challenges coming from ideologically incorrect states, are anticipated and woven into a comprehensive plan offering Islamic answers to citizens’ problems and to the problem of the state’s place and purpose. I argue that the draft constitution is a systematic strategic act of totalizing comprehensiveness that trades agency for order, with troubling consequences.

KENNETH BURKE POSITIONED THE LONG “Dialectic of Constitutions” section of A Grammar of Motives as “logically prior” to dramatism itself (Grammar xvii) or, more emphatically, as “a representative anecdote” for a “generative model for the study of language as symbolic action” (“Questions and Answers” 334). Yet Burke was dismayed at the relative neglect of this section by reviewers, scholars, and teachers (Grammar 1, Dramatism and Development 24, Rueckert x).  I say “relative neglect” because Robert Wess and Michael Feehan, in essays appearing in a 1991 double issue of Pre/Text, argue for the centrality of the constitutional dialectic to dramatism. Were we able to communicate with Burke now, he might be pleased to learn that stock in the dialectic of constitutions has risen.  Articles such as Virginia Anderson’s “Antithetical Ethics” (1995) and monographs such as Wess’s Kenneth Burke (1996), Gregory Clark’s Rhetorical Landscapes (2004), Dana Anderson’s Identity’s Strategy (2007), and Elizabeth Weiser’s Burke, War, Words (2008), have contextualized, extended, and used Burke’s constitutional dialectic, contributing to a richer understanding of what Clark describes as Burke’s larger concern with “the constitutive rhetorical function of symbols” (125).

Even with these important recent advances, however, criticism of constitutions themselves as the primary object of study have not been well represented in our scholarship. I contend that we gain by Burkean readings of other constitutions besides the U.S. Constitution, so I undertake one such reading here, in the hope of offering a first step in the direction I suggest. I examine a particular constitution at the heart of an ongoing ideological struggle: the 186-article draft constitution for an Islamic khilafah (caliphate) state advocated by the global movement Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). As Burke argues, and recent Burke scholarship acknowledges, constitutional enactments can offer particularly salient insights into forms of talk about human motives.

HT, whose name translates to “Party of Liberation,” seeks to spread the Da’wah (call to Islam) and to create a wide-ranging, perhaps even global, state that implements Islam as a comprehensive way of life. HT is openly active in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, Denmark, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, and more or less covertly active in several other countries. Reliable membership figures are difficult to come by. While remaining political outsiders (a position mandated by the ideological purity of its vision of Islam), HT nevertheless commands the attention of thousands of Muslims, particularly among young English-speaking Muslims. HT adherents march in demonstrations, distribute HT literature and videos, and tirelessly spread HT doctrine in person, on television, and on the World Wide Web. Perhaps one measure of HT’s persuasive influence, beyond simple membership estimates, is the success that various HT branches have enjoyed in hosting conferences on the khilafah state. For example, a 2007 HT conference in Indonesia filled a soccer stadium with a crowd estimated at 80,000 strong (Marks n.pag.).

While it may seem strange to focus critical attention on such an outré document as HT’s draft constitution, this document (examined here in HT’s English translation) has animated HT’s prodigious rhetorical campaigns for over five decades in many countries. Thus, the draft constitution warrants study as a window into human motives clustering around competing contemporary political and religious narratives.

As Burke reminds us, “there is a test applicable to visions: the test of moral grandeur and stylistic felicity” (Grammar 345).  Alternatively, as Ross Wolin puts it, “practicality is not the proper test” for criticism of a moral vision (163). Even a constitution such as this one, which is unlikely to be enacted, is an especially important site for understanding attempts at “linguistic transformation” (Grammar 402) through dialectic that desires to have “human relations grandly converge” (Grammar 324). Moreover, it would be foolish to dismiss HT’s draft constitution as the mere Utopian wish of fringe radicals. The thousands of interviews of Muslims reported in the recent Gallup Press book Who Speaks for Islam? show that Muslims in many parts of the world support a greater role for shari’a law among Muslims throughout the world (though this support should be contextualized--shari’a, like Islam itself, is not monolithic) (Esposito and Mogahed 92-93).  As thousands of HT members and supporters work to implement the document that would breathe life into the caliphate state, and multiple governments around the world work to resist, the HT draft constitution creates a dialectic between a comprehensive vision of Islam underwritten by God’s will and the identity and social power of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

For Burke, one of the benefits of the Grammar’s attempt to purify war by examining symbolic action was its orientation toward “encouraging tolerance by speculation” (442).  As a “set of coordinates” (377) for analyzing motives, HT’s draft constitution is important evidence of an attempt to fashion an enduring framework for a collective narrative about who We are and what We value. The draft constitution manifests the human drive for answers to questions about human purpose and about managing the causes of strife. I argue that the HT draft constitution offers a systematic strategic act of totalizing comprehensiveness that trades agency for order through a master motive of pious rejection.  We cannot begin to find the common ground from which to begin mutual “tolerance by speculation” until constitutional wishes are examined; but there is little “tolerance by speculation” to be found in this document.  Instead, it offers a brittle fantasy of a purified, comprehensive theocracy likely to sow discord and violence.

Who is HT?

In 1953, Muhammad Taqiuddin an-Nabhani (1909-1977), a jurist in the shari’a Court of Appeals in Al-Quds (Jerusalem), founded HT as a revivalist Islamic political movement (“Who Is Hizb ut-Tahrir?”). As David Commins points out, when Nabhani founded HT, the world’s dominant ideologies were “capitalism, socialism (including communism), and Islam” (197). Nabhani rejected capitalism (and its political structure of democracy) because of his belief that capitalism derives from humankind, not God; thus, human rights in a capitalist democracy are guaranteed merely by humankind (197-98). Nabhani also rejected socialism and communism because of their origins in materialist ideas and in their views of society’s basis as derived from material and structural conditions (197-98). Nabhani was angered by what he saw as the Islamic world’s “state of gloom, anarchy and decline,” relative to competing ideologies, which he blamed on Muslims’ neglect of the Arabic language (the language Muslims believe that God used for his final revelation) and Muslims’ acquiescence in the influence of non-Islamic ideologies (Concepts of Hizb ut-Tahrir 3-5).

In Nabhani’s reading of Islamic history, earlier Muslims “used to understand that their existence in life was for the sake of Islam” (4). Islam, in Nabhani’s view, compels Muslims to spread the Da’wah (call to Islam) and to create a state implementing Islam as a way of life (5). The Muslim world went wrong, and Islamic states declined, he argued, when they lost the focus on Islam as supported by a strong state, settling instead for the mere outward tokens of religious practice (mosques, books, education) while “they kept silent over the domination of kufr (disbelief; non-Muslim). . . and . . . colonisation” (5). Past reform movements from within Islam fell short, Nabhani claimed, because they failed to maintain the correct ideas about Islam and they failed to use the correct method. In particular, Nabhani blamed Muslim scholars for studying Islam scholastically, removing it from practical concerns, for misunderstanding Quranic verses, for allowing “the malicious West hateful of Islam and the Muslims” to attack the faith, and for allowing Muslims to believe that an Islamic state was only a Utopian dream (7-11). Nabhani founded HT to link a purified Islamic ideal (unified community of believers living in a just state) with the clearest Islamic method (following Muhammad’s example of inviting non-Muslims to convert). Nabhani hoped that this ideal and method would first take root in a Muslim country, remaking that country into “a nucleus for the great Islamic State that resumes the Islamic way of life by the application of Islam completely in all Islamic lands and conveys the Islamic da’wah to the entire world” (11).

In HT doctrine, every Muslim is duty-bound to work for the revival of the caliphate state (3). Nabhani even challenged contemporary Muslims to exceed the glories of past caliphates:

If the Muslim Ummah [community of believers]… in the past, lived in a country which did not stretch beyond the Arabian Peninsula, and which… numbered only a few million, [yet] . . . when she embraced Islam and carried its Message[,] she represented a world superpower . . .  conquer[ing] [foreign] lands and spread[ing] Islam over almost the whole…inhabited…world . . ., then what are we to say about the Ummah today; numbering more than one billion, . . . if she were a single state, stretching from Spain in the East to China in the West and from Turkey in the north to Malaysia in the south . . . [and] carrying a single correct ideology to the world? She would undoubtedly constitute a front…stronger in every respect than the leading superpowers put together. The Islamic State 238-39.

Nabhani mapped HT’s ideologically correct transformative vision onto three sweeping stages. In the first stage, the movement will seek to inculcate belief in its mission and gather followers; in the second stage, followers will establish Islam in worldly affairs; finally, the movement will establish an Islamic government, overseen by an elected male Muslim, the khilafah, and will use the state to spread the call to Islam to the world (The Methodology of Hizb ut-Tahrir for Change 32-35). Nabhani argues that spreading the call to Islam “dictates the invitation of the people to Islam, acculturating them with its concepts and rules, and the removal of any material obstacle,” including, under certain conditions, opposing peoples and states (The Islamic State 48; 143-44). Nabhani goes on to explain that the method of propagating this call is “a defined method that never changes, which is Jihad,” defining Jihad as “the call to Islam which involves fighting, or the contribution of either money, opinions, or literature towards the fighting” (143). Relying on Muhammad’s example, Nabhani proposes that non-Muslims be invited to convert; failing that, non-Muslims should be invited to “pledge allegiance to the State and the regime” and pay Jizyah (tax for living under the protection of the Muslim state) (144). If non-Muslims neither convert nor pay Jizyah, “then…fighting would be lawful.” (144). In HT doctrine today, the scope of fighting on behalf of the state is not limited to fighting external obstacles. For instance, Abdul Qadeem Zallum, Nabhani’s successor as party head, argued that Muslims must stop “the dismemberment of any country from the body of the Khilafah… even if [such action leads] to the killing of millions of Muslims” (197).

Although HT describes itself as a political party, it does not intervene in the political process by, for example, running candidates for office or intervening with lawmakers through procedural channels. Indeed, HT doctrine eschews gradual change from within kufr states, using that term for “non-believer” as a dyslogistic epithet marking all other existing governments, including current governments in Muslim countries, which HT condemns as Islamic in name only. As HT puts it, “Today, it is clear that…no country including every single Muslim country implements Islam” (“Clarifying the Meaning” n.pag.). Nabhani divides the world into, on the one hand, the Dar-al-Islam (realm of Islam) and, on the other hand, the Dar-al-Kufr (realm of unbelief), also known as the Dar al-Harb (realm of war) (The Islamic State 240, 278). In HT doctrine, the realms of unbelief and of war are synonyms because “in origin the aim of Islam is to spread to all lands until the Islamic state encompasses the whole globe” (“Clarifying the Meaning” n.pag.).

But, how would this global state structure human relations within the frame of a purely Islamic political arrangement? To add flesh to his polemical and ideological skeleton for HT’s transformation of Muslims’ place in the world, Nabhani drafted a lengthy constitution for the khilafah state. Before using the tools that Burke gives us to examine the draft constitution as important symbolic action, I will pause to trace Burke’s development of the constitutional dialectic.

Burke and the Constitutional Dialectic

“The Dialectic of Constitutions” ends the Grammar, and is its longest section. Yet, Burke’s original plan was exactly the opposite. Searching for an appropriate “representative idealist [agent-centered] anecdote” to introduce his work on “rhetorical strategies and symbolic acts,” Burke settled (after several blind alleys and abandoned drafts) on “The Constitutional Wish” (323). But, Burke soon found himself in the unenviable position of needing to introduce his introduction so he could establish why a written constitution is a fruitful place from which to begin understanding talk about human motives (323-24). Escaping “the hint of an infinite regress” of introductions (338), Burke eventually found a way out of his dilemma.

Conceiving of “constitution” as “enactment” returned Burke to his “final set of terms,” the dramatistic pentad (340). Burke’s struggles with finding the right anecdote led him, as Wess puts it, to “the discovery of the convertibility of substance and motive” (Wess “Dialectic” 13). As enactments, constitutions are evidence of agents’ purposeful acts within a historical scene (and looking ahead to future scenes) that use symbolic action (not force) to create a particular political order and group character. Burke argues that the pentad’s terms and ratios are central to asking questions about human motives and can readily be justified by “the ‘collective revelation’ of common usage” and application; thus, “they [need] nothing to proceed [sic] them” (340). Burke’s maneuvering to justify his choice of anecdote and method links motives with the rhetorical ground upon which motives are born:

Men’s conception of motive…is integrally related to their conception of substance. Hence, to deal with problems of motive is to deal with problems of substance. And a thing’s substance is that whereof it is constituted. Hence, a concern with substance is a concern with the problems of constitutionality. And where questions of constitutionality are central, could we do better than select the subject of a Constitution and its typical resources as the anecdote about which to shape our terms? (337-38).

Burke maintains that constitutions are particularly representative anecdotes for a work “[o]n Human Relations” because constitutions are “anecdote[s] summational in character…wherein human relations grandly converge,” human wills are enacted agonistically, and “the attempt is made, by verbal or symbolic means, to establish a motivational fixity of some sort, in opposition to something that is thought liable to endanger this fixity” (323, 324, 357). Thus, a written constitution, by creating a body politic and the structure of motives on which that body stands, can serve as “a calculus of motives…a terminology, or set or coordinates, for the analysis of motives” (325, 377).  If history is best viewed as an “unending conversation,” as Burke’s parlor metaphor (Philosophy of Literary Form 110-111) suggests, then constitutions are texts that work internally and externally to structure the parlor and to purify war. Using the image of the fencing statue (what can be said to make the defender’s parry timeless, regardless of which weapon or line of attack future opponents take?), Burke calls our attention to the contexts in which agents make particular constitutional enactments and to the oppositions within those enactments that can become motives shaping history’s ongoing conversations (365).

Turning to the example most familiar to his readers, the U.S. Constitution, Burke foregrounded one of the pentadic terms—Agent—to exemplify how motives can best be examined (323). Constitutions are symbolic actions intended to shape the realm of possibilities for each society’s view of who We are, how We should act toward One Another, and how We relate to Them. Such generalized enactments are philosophically “idealistic” because they position the agent’s unique characteristics as the source of present and future acts (171, 323, 360). As Burke points out, the U.S. Constitution is an especially idealistic document because it is interpreted using “the fiction that the will of the people today is consubstantial with the will of the Founding Fathers,” making today’s interpreters “co-agents” along with the Founders (175).

Burke also calls our attention to the importance of agent-to-agent address in constitutions (360). Constitutions create an I or a We that addresses a You, with statements and definitions becoming exhortations: “What a Constitution would do primarily is to substantiate an ought…to base a statement as to what should be upon a statement as to what is” (358, emphasis original), or, more specifically, “If a Constitution declares a right ‘inalienable,’ for instance, it is a document signed by [people] who said in effect, ‘Thou shalt not alienate this right’” (360). I or We state (or define) X; X shapes the realm of what you can (or ought) to do. Burke’s focus on agents highlights how constitutions are evidence of efforts to create a timeless continuity of shared history and values, while using the necessarily elastic constitutional terms to enable interpretation as contexts change (as new attacks are launched at our hypothetical fencer, still holding the parry).

While he stresses the role of agents, Burke also points to a special conception of scene for constitutions: the “Constitution-Behind-the-Constitution” or the “wider circumference” for constitutional acts (362). This “wider circumference” describes any particular “social, natural, or supernatural environment in general” in which the constitutional enactment or its later interpretation occurs. (362). For example, with the U.S. Constitution, Burke points to the influence of business interests on legal interpretation and to the Constitution’s origin within a time of “retraction and consolidation” after the revolution (362-63). To see the full range of strategies of a constitutional enactment through the lens of this widened circumference, the critic must pay attention not only to the text but also to these particular contexts. A complete statement about motives obliges the critic, Wess contends, to engage in “[c]onstitutional analysis” that “uncovers the rhetorical situation within which the pentad functions” (178). Putting it another way, Wess asserts, “In the pentad, all roads lead to the act–that is, to the constitution” (181) so critics must not simply pull the pentad out of the Grammar, a practice that irritated Burke (“Questions and Answers” 334).

What emerges from this crystallizes into a critical framework for Burkean analysis of constitutions as the primary object of study and as strategic, stylized purifications of war. Critics should argue for a particular conception of the constitution behind the constitution, show how the constitution strategically positions the Agent’s unique characteristics as the source of present and future acts, focus on constitutional appeals to, and tensions among competing idealistic concepts, identify constitutional exhortations as addressed (We, One Another, Them), and account for how the constitution attempts to remain timeless within present and future contexts. Of course, such critical considerations may be important in examining a range of symbolic action, not just constitutions. However, constitutions present particular rhetorical challenges. They must breathe life into a new state, manage the tensions of past, present, and future, and create a new national character that remains vibrant–ideally, in perpetuity. The HT draft constitution is evidence of one worldwide effort to meet that rhetorical challenge, but with troubling implications.

Generalized Wishes in the HT Draft Constitution 

For HT, Islam is not just a set of religious beliefs practiced in certain ways in certain places at certain times. Instead, HT views Islam as “a comprehensive way of life that is capable of managing the affairs of state and society” (“Draft Constitution”).  As former HT member (now outspoken critic) Majid Nawaz puts it, “Religion had been merged with politics in such a way that we worshipped God through our political activities” (qtd in Rowland and Theye 69). Thus, the draft constitution is a detailed plan for carrying out the state’s “primary function,” namely, “to carry the Islamic Da’wah” (Art.11, Nabhani, The Islamic State 242). Indeed, for HT, the very “raison d’etat of the Ummah is Islam in the forceful persona of its State; the sound implementation of its rules; and in the persistence of conveying its Da’wah to mankind” (Art.183, The Islamic State 275). There are no U.S. Constitution-style efforts to manage tensions between religion and the state here; this document creates a state in which religion is central.

The draft constitution contains ten sections totaling 186 articles. Spanning almost 10,000 words in the English translation that HT distributes, it touches all aspects of citizens’ lives: religious practice, government, military, judicial, and financial matters, and economic, social, political, and educational policy. The role of the Islamic government in citizens’ lives in HT’s khilafah state is comprehensive. Indeed, in reaching out to the Egyptian people in the wake of Mubarak’s recent ouster, HT uses this very comprehensiveness as a selling point for its solutions to humankind’s troubles:

We in Hizb-ut-Tahrir fully realise that the Ummah’s choice is Islam and that she will choose the rule of Islam, not the rule of Jahiliya [ignorance of Islam]. We also inform you that Hizb-ut-Tahrir has drafted a comprehensive constitution with its incumbent motives. It is a pure Islamic constitution based exclusively on the Shari’ah texts and their denotations. (“To the Sincere Noblemen,” bracketed text mine)

By contrast, the U.S. Constitution, drafted in the wake of America’s revolution against British rule, divides governmental power and contains just seven articles augmented, over the years, by twenty-seven amendments (authorized by Article V), for a total of about 4400 words. While HT’s draft constitution allows for removal of the khilafah as head of state under certain circumstances (Articles 38 and 39), it does not provide any express means of amending its 186 articles. Its provisions and HT’s campaigns citing the draft constitution create, what might only half-jokingly be dubbed, a turnkey solution for ideological and methodological impiety.

Indeed, solving the problem of impiety is this imagined state’s root motive. Thus, the “constitution behind” the HT draft constitution is a complete rejection of competing ideologies such as capitalism, democracy, socialism, individualism, and nationalism coupled with the imperative to succeed where other Islamic movements failed (because, in HT’s view, their methods were impious). Ultimately, to break from competing ideologies and impious methods is, for HT, to return to God, to the perfection of the very idea of unified timelessness and the source of all law. “We the People” are not the source of governmental legitimacy and authority, while “secur[ing] the blessings of Liberty” (to borrow two aspirational phrases from the U.S. Constitution’s Preamble) takes a backset to creating a harmonious order. The common mythos of U.S. culture (often despite the actual conditions on the ground) is one of individual freedom and self-determination—that is, pentadic Agency. For HT, (God’s) Order comes to the fore and, indeed, supersedes other terms.

Order, as the draft constitution portrays it, results from the state’s (correct, pious) “moral grandeur,” to return to Burke’s term. As for the second half of Burke’s test of visions, “stylistic felicity,” the English translation that HT uses is written in what Byron Hawk has, in another context, called “the style of no style” (85). Through a prose style that often reads more as a rule book than as a set of broad principles, the draft constitution positions its articles as foundational, comprehensive, and able to anticipate, answer, and transcend competing political ideologies founded on any basis other than (HT’s conception of) Islam.

Islam is a heterogeneous worldwide religion with no centralized clergy structure. Despite Islam’s immense diversity, the draft constitution uses the singular article “the” throughout (“the Islamic Da’wah,” “the Islamic point of view,” “the Islamic personality,” and, most saliently, “the Islamic State”), linguistically transforming diversity (and the potential for dissension) into unity. The draft constitution attempts to transcend potential divisions among citizens that might derive from nationalism, sectarianism, race, or class by declaring that the state rests on a foundation of Islamic aqeeda (core Islamic creed; from root word connoting “knotted together”) (Art. 1, The Islamic State 240). Nothing within the state’s political, social, or economic structures, institutions, or state-controlled educational curriculum can be done unless it derives from aqeeda (Art. 1, Art. 165, The Islamic State 240, 271).

Creed, then, is the pure source of present and future action.  It is the way to learn about and to enact belief in Islam as God’s final revelation while spreading that belief to others and getting down to the core of Muslim belief enacted in a political arrangement that unites Muslims, resists outsiders’ attempts to divide the Ummah, and endures in the face of history’s constant flux. The draft constitution, to use Burke’s term, “establishes a motivational fixity” (Grammar 357) that opposes threats to the state’s continued vitality. Motivational fixity is crucial for preserving the state’s role as the community in which Islam is lived out and competing ideologies and states are rejected.

For HT, the linguistic source for living out creed is purified: the draft constitution stipulates that because Arabic “is the language of Islam,” it will be “the sole language used by the State” and thus part of an educational scheme mandating that Islamic culture and the Arabic language receive as much class time per week as every other subject combined (Art. 8, 168, The Islamic State 241, 272). Just as the chief purpose of the state is to carry the call to Islam, so too the function of education is to “produce the Islamic personality” equipped with “different disciplines of knowledge and sciences connected with life’s affairs,” all within the framework of the single language of God’s final revelation (Art. 167, 172, The Islamic State 272, 273). The draft constitution goes on to urge that Muslim males serving their compulsive military service “should be provided with the Islamic education” to come to “a full awareness of Islam, in toto”(Art. 63, The Islamic State 253).

In contrast with popular caricatures of an Islamic state, the state envisioned by the draft constitution is not a medieval anachronism that would reject advancements in science and technology. Instead, in setting educational policy it draws a bright line distinguishing between, disciplines and skills “such as business administration, navigation, and agriculture,” which may be “studied without restriction or conditions” as to their cultural origin and, on the other hand, disciplines and skills “that might be associated with a particular culture” or “influenced by a particular view, as with painting and sculpturing” (Art. 171, The Islamic State 272). This latter category quite simply “will not be studied if they contradict the Islamic point of view” (Art. 171, The Islamic State 272). Put another way, the draft constitution chooses between technologies and ideologies: the former can be diverse, the latter cannot. In its educational policy, the draft constitution seeks to develop advanced, educated citizens best able to carry the call to Islam by striking a balance between the ideal of a modern, advanced education and the ideal of ideological and cultural purity. To strike this balance now and in the future, the document refers citizens once again to origins and substance.

From the individual level to the state itself, the draft constitution positions the Islamic creed and its resulting character as the essence of ideologically, religiously, and politically correct action. The state acts chiefly through a single individual, a male Muslim who, once elected, assumes the title of khilafah (Art. 26, The Islamic State 242). Indeed, the draft constitution makes no distinction between the man and the state: “the Khilafah is the State.  He possesses all the authority of the State” (Art. 35, The Islamic State 246). He has the power to issue binding law, set foreign and domestic policy, make war and sign treaties, set the state budget, and appoint judges (Art. 35, 37, 39, The Islamic State 246, 247). The khilafah’s power “to conduct the affairs of the citizens” is a matter of “absolute right” (Art. 37, The Islamic State 247), albeit within limits set by shari’a law (as HT sees it),and subject to limited judicial review by judges the khilafah appoints (Art. 40, 78, The Islamic State 248, 255).

Yet, to ensure that the state remains uncorrupted from kufr political systems, even the khilafah cannot accept an oath of allegiance from non-Muslim states or from states under protection of non-Muslim states (Art. 29, The Islamic State 245). Like domestic policy, all foreign policy must have its genesis in da’wah (Art. 183, The Islamic State 275). The unique characteristics of Islam become the source of life in the khilafah state and in its relations to other states. To purify internal strife in the khilafah state through linguistic transformation, the draft constitution seeks to anticipate and manage competing rights. Among the many conflicts that it anticipates are conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims, between citizens competing for economic resources, and between the khilafah state and other states. Because the state will follow an exclusively Islamic origin and method, the draft constitution imposes shari’a law on all citizens, whether Muslims or not, and forbids non-Muslims from forming political parties or voting to elect the khilafah (Art. 7, 21, 26, The Islamic State 241, 243). It does permit non-Muslims to voice complaints about the application of shari’a on them, and allows them to serve on the elected assembly able to offer advice to the khilafah, but only with the limited role of complaining of unjust treatment (Art. 20, 103, The Islamic State 243, 260). Non-Muslim males are not required to serve in the military or to pay taxes that Muslims must pay, but are subject to the Jizyah protection tax (Art. 140, 142, The Islamic State 266, 267).

Through these broad grants of authority and particular limits on authority, the draft constitution establishes the khilafah as the living model of a particular view of the Islamic personality. Compared with the U.S. Constitution, memorably described by Burke as “a Constitution for small business”; that is, a constitution providing “coordinates [to] think by” that emphasize a shared investment in tropes of private industry, making one’s own fortune, and upward mobility, the HT draft constitution is a constitution for transforming creed into deed (Grammar 367). Its “coordinates to think by” are a stunningly thorough expression of “the” Islamic personality enacting the aqeeda.

But what of strategically answering the problem of religious freedom? Not all citizens of the khilafah state will be Muslims, after all. The draft constitution grants non-Muslims the right to “follow their own beliefs and acts of worship”; however, the articles describing rules for divorce, child custody, and religious training of children in mixed households favor Islam (Art. 7, 118, The Islamic State 241, 263). Perhaps the fullest expression of the state’s investment in Islam’s status as paramount, even with a scope of religious tolerance, can be found in this section of one of the general articles at the beginning of the document: “The Murtadeen [apostates] will be treated according to the rules of Murtadeen, provided that they themselves have renounced Islam” (Art. 7, section c., The Islamic State 241). Islamic thought is not monolithic on this issue. However, a view that has persisted in some strands of Islamic thought is that apostasy is, as Bernard Lewis puts it, “a capital offense, both for the one who is misled and the one who misleads him” (55).

HT spokespersons generally refuse to answer questions about apostasy in the khilafah state, but the draft constitution’s grants of protection and limited political rights to non-Muslims, coupled with descriptions of how Islam is nevertheless to control many facets of non-believers’ lives, attempt to shape the realm of what’s possible in individual lives and religious expressions. HT’s brand of Islam tolerates other religions, on its own terms, but remains the expression of pious rejection, the paramount political engine that does not brook renunciations. In short, the document creates an Us (all citizens in the state, co-existing) circumscribed by another, smaller Us (only the Muslim citizens) on the dominant side of a “Thou Shalt Not,” strategically positioning Islam as both flexible enough to tolerate other religions (up to a point) and important enough to defend against influence from other religions or from renunciation.

The draft constitution’s longest section, Articles 119-164, addresses competing rights and obligations as managed within the state’s economic system, a system Nabhani mapped out as a refutation of competing ideologies of capitalism and socialism that both derive from corruptible man-made ideas. The state’s basic task in setting economic policy is how best “to distribute funds and benefits to all citizens, to enable them to possess them and to work for them” (Art. 120, The Islamic State 263). To begin that task, the draft constitution declares the fundamental starting point that “Wealth belongs to Allah” (Art. 122, The Islamic State 263). While God permits persons to own and dispose of property and to earn profits, their actions are “restricted by the permission of Shari’a” (Art. 128, The Islamic State 264). Thus, “Squandering, extravagance, and miserliness are forbidden,” as are “capitalist companies, cooperatives, and all other illegal transactions such as Riba (usury), fraud, monopolies, gambling and the like” (Art. 128, The Islamic State 264). The state is to provide “free health care for all,” “guarantee adequate support” for the needy, provide shelter and sustenance for “the disabled and handicapped,” and “guarantee employment for all citizens” (Art. 149, 152, 160, The Islamic State 269, 270).

Toward those ends, the state “must ensure the circulation of wealth among all citizens and forbid the circulation of wealth among only a sector of the society” (Art. 153, The Islamic State 269). Zakat (mandatory alms) that the state collects are “only to be spent in one or more of the eight categories mentioned in the Qur’an” (Art. 139, emphasis original, The Islamic State 266).[1] To prevent foreign influence over the khilafah state’s economy and currency, the draft constitution forbids foreign investment and mandates that the state issue its own currency that is “not…associated with any other foreign currency” (Art. 161, The Islamic State 162, 271). To avoid the boom-and-bust cycles of the currency markets, the state may not issue currency unless gold or silver reserves completely cover it (Art. 163, The Islamic State 271).

The draft constitution portrays its economic principles as derived from God’s true, timeless ownership of all, including monetary wealth. From the individual to the state to the international level, it enacts economic policy as creed and as performance of “the Islamic personality.” Through exhortation and prohibition, the draft constitution positions the acquisition, use, growth, and distribution of wealth as a potentially corrupting force to be converted into an avenue of worship and obedience. Wealth is to be spent and managed in specific ways, all in the Ummah are to be provided for, the state’s economy is to be kept uncontaminated by foreign influence, and the shocks of other states’ experimentations with economic policy not derived from Islam are to be walled off. Whether any particular state could actually meet these goals by following these strict principles is beside the point, at least so long as HT confines itself to persuasion only (though Nabhani’s writings transform “fighting” into a legitimate means of political action). What matters is that the draft constitution takes one of the most fractious and turbulent human symbol-systems ever devised—wealth—and attempts, by language, to preempt present and future misalignments with God’s will that wealth all too often brings about.


I hope that this essay shows the merits of using Burke’s constitutional dialectic to examine constitutions themselves as the objects of study. Comparative studies of ideological opponents’ constitutions and close readings of draft constitutions for emerging nations are potential avenues for continuing Burke’s project of ad bellum purificandum with the constitutional dialectic at its heart.

As this essay has shown, HT’s draft constitution for the khilafah state attempts to comprehensively chart a new Islamic nation that touches all aspects of citizens’ lives, transcends differences, and perpetuates the call to Islam. Thus, this document offers particularly salient evidence of one worldwide effort to transform human relations through symbolic action and offers an example of the kind of primary criticism I suggest.

While the U.S. Constitution, too, is evidence of human attempts to fix motives and to parry present and future threats to a new state, its sparse provisions “grandly converge” human relations in a divided government whose powers have their genesis in citizens’ shared mythos of self-determination, individual liberty, and (let me be blunt) capitalism. The dialectic of the U.S. Constitution is a dialectic of competing ideals, rights, and interests that emphasizes, especially in the Bill of Rights, the individual agent’s rights to be free from state action. The dialectic of the HT constitution is a dialectic of rejection—rejection of impious political arrangements (that is, every other political arrangement besides the khilafah state) and rejection of potential fractiousness that might impede the development of “the Islamic personality” or the call to Islam.

In short, HT’s generalized wish trades agency for order. Burke reminds us that constitutions offer strategic answers, derived from ideals, to the shared problems of living, derived from partial, time-bound human existence. If not continually reenacted and performed, even a shared vision of the perfect state sows the seeds of its own unmaking. In this case, internal conflicts and differences, not to mention challenges coming from ideologically incorrect states, are anticipated and woven into a comprehensive plan offering Islamic answers to citizens’ problems and to the problem of the state’s place and purpose. Instead of creating a linguistic framework for the Sisyphean tasks of political negotiation and judicial interpretation, HT offers a brittle fantasy of a totalized, comprehensive state that trades agency for order.

I say “brittle fantasy” because the state that HT envisions, the state it seeks tirelessly to implement (thus far through persuasive means only) is so comprehensive, so ideal, so perfected as to be rotten, to borrow a plank from Burke’s “Definition of Man” (Language as Symbolic Action 16-17). The HT draft constitution squeezes out all the air from the kind of contextually reworked “general chapterhead” concept of broad values and principles that Burke describes as features of “our secular Constitutions” (Grammar 366). What’s left is, in HT’s own characterization—indeed used by HT as a selling point—is an already worked-out set of ideological and political arrangements for rejection and transformation derived from the purest of pure foundations: God. HT’s drive to purify war through aqeeda, as this essay has shown, yields insights into the unique human genius/psychosis for elaborate symbolic enactments that mark out an Us versus a Them: the pure state with its pure basis versus “the realm of war,” Islam versus kufr, full citizens versus tolerated citizens. Unfortunately, though, Nabhani’s “lawful fighting” as political method is incipient in this document because there is precious little “tolerance by speculation” or hint of a Burkean comic frame to HT’s efforts to transform the world. The draft constitution’s strategic oppositions and end-of-the-line terms for order all but guarantee that there will always be a huge gap between perfected generalized wish and political reality. Pious rejection and frustrated transformations of substance are not the seeds of a purified war.

* Drew M. Loewe is an Assistant Professor in the department of English Writing & Rhetoric at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.  He can be contacted via email at drewml@stedwards.edu or drewloewe@gmail.com and by phone at (210) 478-8220.

I thank the editor, Andrew King, and KB Journal’s anonymous external reviewers for their probing and helpful comments that have strengthened this article.


1 These eight categories, specified in Qur’an 9.60, are the poor, the needy, administrators, converts and certain non-Muslims, captives, debtors, those carrying out Jihad (not necessarily meaning war or fighting), and travelers (Benthall 31-32). The exact parameters of these categories, whether one must be a Muslim to receive Zakat funds, and other details are, as with practices of other religions, a subject of debate among Muslims (31).

Works Cited

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Anderson, Virginia. “Antithetical Ethics: Kenneth Burke and the Constitution.” JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory 15.2 (1995): 261-79. Print.

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—. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

—.  “Definition of Man.” Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966. Print.

—. “Questions and Answers About the Pentad.” College Composition and Communication 28 (1978): 330-35. Print. “Clarifying the Meaning of Dar al-Kufr & Dar al-Islam.” Khilafah.com. 28 March 2007. Web. 22 Jun. 2010.

Clark, Gregory. Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004. Print.

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Feehan, Michael. “Co-Haggling with Robert Wess.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory 12.1 (1991): 34-36. Print.

—. “Kenneth Burke’s Dualistic Theory of Constitutions.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory 12.1 (1991): 39-59. Print.

Hawk, Byron. “Hyperrhetoric and the Inventive Spectator: Remotivating The Fifth Element.” The Terministic Screen: Rhetorical Perspectives on Film. Ed. David Blakesley. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2003. 70-91. Print.

Lewis, Bernard. The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Print.

Marks, Kathy. “Islamists Rally to Demand Creation of Muslim State.” The Independent. 13 Aug. 2007. Web. 8 Jan. 2010.

an-Nabhani, Taquiddin. Concepts of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Trans. unknown. Khilafah.com. 25 October 2007. Web-PDF e-book. 12 Jan. 2010.

—. The Islamic State. Trans. unknown. Living Islam Series 2. New Dehli, Milli, 2001. Print.

—. The Methodology of Hizb ut-Tahrir for Change. Khilafah.com. 16 Mar. 2006. Web-Internet Archive files. 7 Jul. 2007.

Rowland, Robert and Kirsten Theye. “The Symbolic DNA of Terrorism.” Communication Monographs 75.1 (2008): 52-85. Print.

Rueckert, William H. Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations. 2d ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982. Print

“To the Sincere Noblemen of the Islamic Ummah in Egypt: Open Letter.” Hizb ut-Tahrir.org. Hizb ut-Tahrir. 7 Feb. 2001. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

United States Constitution. Cornell Legal Information Institute. Cornell U. Law School. Web. 22 Feb. 2011.

Wess, Robert. “Kenneth Burke’s ‘Dialectic of Constitutions’.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory 12.1-2 (1991): 9-30. Print

—. Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print

“Who is Hizb ut-Tahrir?” Hizb ut-Tahrir: The Liberation Party. 27 Jul. 2006. Web. 9 Dec. 2007.

Weiser, M. Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Dramatism. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2008. Print.

Wolin, Ross. The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2001. Print.

Zallum, Abdul Qadeem. How the Khilafah was Destroyed. New Dehli: Milli, 2002. Print.

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“Where Human Relations Grandly Converge”: The Constitutional Dialectic of Hizb ut-Tahrir by Drew M. Loewe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

The Song above Catastrophe: Kenneth Burke on Music

Jeffrey Carroll, University of Hawaii at Manoa


ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 11TH, 2001, a giant of modern music heard the towers fall only seven blocks away from his apartment. On September 12, 2001 he took to the stairs of his apartment. He walked down thirty-nine stories to get to the front door of his building; he had spent the night of the 11th without electricity, alone. He was 71 years old. When he evacuated the building on the 12th he carried a briefcase, a bag of clothes, and one more thing in his arms: his tenor saxophone.

Four days later Sonny Rollins played a gig in Boston.

Nearly seventy-five years earlier, Kenneth Burke—the subject of this small book—began his brief career as a music critic by writing monthly columns for The Dial, by many accounts the foremost literary magazine of its time; his first words, as published, are “Decidedly, it is with misgivings”: an indication, perhaps, that this new role was unsuited to him. But almost a year later, in late 1928, he describes his hopes, with perhaps a side of irony, for the role of music in all our lives:

Music, we had decided, would be the song above catastrophe—something like the court of a great Lewis before the patter of rain has become the trampling of many feet. How long could it last? No answer! Perhaps it would grow firmer, and spread even to those dark and fetid regions. The vast enterprise of music. That art which has charms to make the soothed breast savage, and which tends as naturally towards the grandiloquent as literature tends toward laundry lists. (“Musical Chronicle” [9] 529)

Burke continues with a defense of art that might apply not only to Sonny Rollins heading for Boston but for all those who, Burke tells us, “are nameless in their effects”; they are nameless, of course, because art is such an integral part of our lives that we tend not to “authorize” art unless, as Burke asserts, it emanates from the true “metaphysicians” among us. Burke then delivers a heady assertion that defies easy refutation, despite there being something peculiarly radical about it: “A complex social organization is maintained by a state of mind, and that state of mind is constructed out of art” (“Musical Chronicle” [9] 529).

A glimpse, perhaps, into that day in the life of Sonny Rollins, and into all of our days.

Introduction: Scales and Chords

This book concerns itself with texts on music in the work of Kenneth Burke––buried, with few exceptions, among other texts many times analyzed, many times multiplied and asserted, revised and created––with the aim of finding their concordance, their sense together, even though the verbal texts outweigh the tonal to such a degree that Kenneth Burke’s writing on music has been largely ignored. Such are the consequences of the masterpieces being largely absent of music save for occasional illustrative incidents. This book will concern itself primarily with Burke’s two stints as music critic for The Dial from 1928 to 1929 and The Nation from 1933 to 1936. Burke’s novel, Towards a Better Life (1931) and short stories, from The Collected White Oxen (1968) will also yield, among greater non-music content in these texts, some of Burke’s thinking about music; his grasp of the subject is broad, his interest a subject of this small book.

Our connections to music seem infinite, and of these several will be explored in this book. As for another connection, between me and Kenneth Burke, there is the very common one: I have read Burke, thought about Burke, talked about Burke, written about Burke.  I was introduced to him, or rather his work, in 1985 by Anne Ruggles Gere, who assigned her class the “Lexicon Rhetoricae” from Counter-Statement. At the time, I was balancing literature and creative writing upon the scales of my doctoral studies. I can’t claim that Burke made the world over again, but the text was so lusciously dense, so literarily off-hand while at the same time almost frighteningly assertive—that I knew the day had come to change. He blew everyone off the stage that quarter.

And, to think, he was still alive. He had the original power of an Aristotle, I thought; my bit of a swoon for the big text, the systematic and anti-systematic, the hints of the big picture, the dissolution of having to try to be that ambitious: the cool of the offhand of genius. One doesn’t need to belong to any kind of cult of personality, or hero, to appreciate living in the moment of something important, somebody important. Aristotle was not here, nor was Quintilian, but Burke was. Of books and conversation—the kinds of ideas that could help sustain my commitment to the field of teaching and writing about rhetoric.

Narrowed very quickly to music, the work of Kenneth Burke would appear to be only glancingly relevant, an obscure handful of footnotes or a quick chapter in something larger, more tuned to those matters that have always come up in discussions about Burke’s work. If we look at three fine, representative full-length works on Burke, we find how little attention has been given his writing on music, or writing with music: William Rueckert asserts on his first page of Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations that “I have not discussed Burke as a music critic or the possible effect of this activity on his literary theory and critical practice”(3); Ross Wolin in The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke digs deeply into Burke’s years in New York, and especially his early tenure at The Dial, but does not discuss any of Burke’s music criticism, which appeared late in Burke’s time there; Jack Selzer’s  Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village, a vivid account of the critic’s formative years in New York, only reports that the critical pieces were “surveys of serious modern musical performances”(135); only in Robert Wess’s Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism is there a key point made about Burke’s early interest in music criticism. Wess argues, although very briefly, that “music is the ideal artistic medium, the one in which the elements making for permanence display themselves most readily” (45); Wess argues, however, from Counter-Statement, and does not go to Burke’s music criticism, as we might expect (or wish) him to do.

The slight attention is, realistically, about right, if one looks at the attention given so far to the whole corpus of Burke’s career; in short, the masterpieces abound (there are surely more than one), and prevent hardly more than a glance at the apparent margins—or the occasional use of music and musicality within those masterpieces. But there is a more obvious reason, intellectually oriented, that prevents there being much said about music in Burke’s criticism: there is no unitary relation between it and the rest. If one were to be found, then readers would still be confronted with a massively incongruous pair: a gathering of footnotes and a many-storied work of philosophy, sociology, rhetoric, and literary theory.  In formal terms, they can’t illuminate each other, except by perhaps a tiny glare of footlights cast upon the giant edifice or, conversely, a light so blindingly cast down that the smaller object disappears in the solar field.

Given, too, the hundreds of works on Burke over the years, it cannot be accidental, or only unfortunate, that there is no sustained analysis of the subject-matter of music in Burke; anecdotes seem to abound more freely about his private life as a  musician than the meaning of music in his publications. This is somewhat odd—that his personality, or life’s narrative, appears of more interest—but perhaps not when viewed over the long span of his career.  In this view we even see what appears to be an almost perfect drying up of music—or better, “on-music”: a steady diminuendo over the decades, so that what begins as a young man’s ardent love of the form is pushed aside by the rigorous demands of a new calling, more grand, yet, in this case, more exclusive in a career that still seems spectacularly inclusive.

The same case can be made for Burke’s art of fiction-writing—short or long—and poetry too. What seems to be a multi-directional intelligence, with a wide array of persuasive channels at his call, is eventually honed, but I will argue in this book that there is more than a kind of unconscious career-choice at work here. Or even a choice of preferred forms, or discourses, at work. I don’t intend to go to the life for answers, as I suggest above; I hope to stay in public histories for the most part and, by far as predominant, Burke’s own published work.  It is there that music and musicality and “on-music” reside (or play) in quite plentiful amounts and occurrences, and it is there that I hope to argue convincingly for the importance of Burke in, and on, music.

I want to show that Burke was formally more than competent at the time (that is, from about 1920 to 1936) working in several distinct forms; I also want to respond to contemporary expectations of our century, where there are still rooms of distinct design, formal situations that demand rules, expectations, and effects. Thus, the chronology of this book, though moving generally forward, is clustered by formal restraints early on—and by Burke’s early submersion in the Modernist aesthetic of New York that tended to look for analogical situations across a broad range of aesthetic experiences.

Working also against the setting up of a kind of narrative of encounters is Burke’s love of the addendum, the postscript, the revision, the foreword, the second foreword, the third foreword, the fourth foreword, the retrospect—all of those add-ons that Rueckert cannot resist calling “Burke’s disease” finally, and which of course speak to the author’s enduring engagement with his subject-matter, and also his ruthless self-examination and self-commentary. Thus, the short stories of the 1920s are supplemented by one in 1952; the novel, published in 1931, is partially explicated by detailed chapter headings 25 years later, and the canonical books of theory and criticism are repeatedly “revised” by these strategies of form by which Burke can do as little as adjust the meaning of a word, or respond to a critic. More importantly, as in his “Criticum Curriculum” to the last edition of Counter-Statement, he provides an overview of the whole career (to that point). Burke looked for the both/and, wholeness, for the sense of that greater sense of the parts brought together. Given the productiveness of his career, this was a new book in itself, a new work on the “curriculum” that, of course, points to the easy perception of a career fraught with sensitivity to particular times and places.

The books, chapters, essays, articles, stories, and commentaries, then, tend to swirl in somewhat of a dance among or with one another. Linearity is a fiction, resisted.

But the presence of music in that process, or arc, can be seen as erratically explicit and implicit—as even Burke works at it early on, as “music” and “musicality”––a continuum of varying volume, I hope to show, of the fictional character “getting up from her Grieg” to the unvoiced and voiced plosives and fricatives of a speech in Shakespeare to the informationlessness of music to the power of repetition as rhythm. I think that it is through music that Burke was arguing for the dignity of mankind as somehow formulated, yearned for, and grasped through the power of music. The “dignity of mankind” is my phrase, but it is one that I have adjusted or revised from Burke’s variations on the ground of motives in his work: equipment for living, “towards a better life,” “the song above catastrophe”: these are formulations of a basic motive underlying the act of communication, itself symbolized in the steady movement of Burke’s explorations of the human condition through language and the critical uses of language. His own, that is: beginning with stories and reviews and critical pieces, interspersed with the more canonical pieces collected in Counter-Statement and then of course beyond to the creative critical peak of A Rhetoric of Motives. Taken as a multi-act drama the career of Burke, not so much as a biographical fact but an unstoppable excrescence of writing and speech, is the symbolic act of moving towards (or aiming for, reaching, grasping) a better life.

What this seems to have meant for him was, in part as he looks in retrospect, what he eventually recognizes as a version of Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values. There are surface similarities in the work: an early interest in music, then diminution, a predilection for aphoristic texts, for creative forms and malforms, for multi-generic grasps of ideas and realities. These similarities in themselves are not interesting to this study except to suggest that Nietzsche, acknowledged early and late in Burke’s life as having had the right idea about “big” things, suggests that Burke was, at heart, as radical thinker as Nietzsche while living in the tempering environment of New York. Exciting and experimental as the work being done there, it was thoroughly grounded in a heavily-networked elite of artists and politicians, artist-politicians, and business people, who were firm believers in their ability to change social conditions. Burke searched for that instrument, finding it in rhetoric; Nietzsche carried out no such sustained rational search, instead finding in the dance of his own genius the answers and counter-answers to the human condition. The better life is recognizably Western, recognizably American, in fact, a politically liberal but hardly radicalized view of how society was systematically understood and run through hierarchy, power relations differentiated (in his time) most obviously by class.

How does one associate this approach to “better living”that is, an approach through being able to negotiate the “barnyard” of modern life through knowing how to communicate more effectively––to music? Isn’t music meaningless––or, when programmed to history, a hopelessly reduced representation, blame or tribute? Its absoluteness, its purity as sheer “tone” or “shaking air” would seem the antithesis to rhetoric, with rhetoric’s intentional, narrowed meanings its situatedness, its specified audiences, its timeliness.  A contemporary understanding of rhetoric as the interestedness of language––coming into focus during Burke’s time, and in part because of Burke himself––does not account for the effective, intentional presence of music in Burke’s work, especially the early texts.

Yet, the idea of the nobility, of the dignity of man persists through Kenneth Burke’s entire oeuvre. It is old-fashioned, yet Burke seems to have continued to search for it with the endless resourcefulness of his mind and thought so that it returns, even as the overall force of the later arguments would look at these old ideals as quaint, inadequate, or reductive. The very length of his career, spanning nearly the entire 20th century, mediates against our reaching simple conclusions about it, and does suggest that there will be inner contradictions produced over time. Indeed, Burke recognized these tensions, if not contradictions, in his endless self-commentaries, his self-revisions I mentioned above. It wasn’t just the need to get things precisely right, it was the need to get them precisely right twice, even three times—as their audience changed, as space and circumstance shifted beneath them.

I will argue in this book that Burke was looking for ways to ensure the dignity of each of us—as only he could, but in such a way as to show us that each of us can so argue for ourselves and others. Besides dignity, many other words continue to appear in Burke over the decades, veritable clusters like those that his own dramatistic method underscored for discovery (and which was brilliantly foreshadowed in the music criticism): piety, nobility, humility, perfection. The meanings of these words do shift, as we know, yet they indicate what Burke’s contemporary, William Faulkner, called “the old virtues”: those ideals he was trying to rediscover, to enact and to enable, to recuperate and place in fruitful tension with changed circumstances, the changed field of the human condition.

So too, Burke: in all phases of his career interested in the ways we understand “human relations” to take form—and how communication energizes, or makes possible an aural reality, those forms in everyday display and deployment that are at once in tension with human conditions like unity and division, and which must trend, Burke believed, in an increasingly serious confrontation with fascist or life-destroying forces. Thus, I choose dignity from the first page of his novel Towards a Better Life as a watch-word for the glimmering project of music in Burke’s critical theories. Why, then, does music seem to grow, then wither, in Burke? Is it only a footnote to the larger project, which I have dared to whittle down to a single term after denying that we should try it? A movement that failed? An aesthetic conceit of the author? Or a sub-text like a river running underground?

Chapter One: Theme, or “Inventory”

By the time Kenneth Burke began his music criticism for The Dial late in 1927 he had already done seven years’ worth of varied work for the journal. Besides editing, Burke had published in several distinct genres: he had done translations of, among others, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, and Arthur Schnitzler; he had reviewed books by, among others, Virginia Woolf, Oswald Spengler, and Gertrude Stein; he had published a story, “The Soul of Kajn Tafha,” and would publish a set of poems, “From Outside,” during his tenure as music critic. The clear signs are of a voracious reader, a thinker, a responder, and a creative artist who, in quick rotation, or as a many-headed beast, was open to the world of art as it was being channeled into the offices of The Dial in Greenwich Village in the 1920s. The purview was not solely The Dial’s either, of course; Burke had already published his collection of short stories in 1924, and was appearing in journals like Bookman and The Little Review.

It is a wonder, in fact, that it took Burke seven years to turn to music as a subject for published criticism; Selzer tells us, however, that Burke was “a full participant, a central participant in the written and oral and artistic exchanges that comprised the modernist dialogue”(60),  a dialogue by which American culture was examined not only in its foregrounded expressions, but those of the less obvious, those that were not primarily reproduced (and brought home as signature of the newly bourgeois 1920s wage-earner, no matter how progressive her politics): those that required a night out, or a day out at the museum (although here it is that the last lacuna of this critic—painting and sculpture—remains). Music, dance, theatre: the art of the gathered audience, the ceremonies of civilized thought and feeling, those that were only now edging fatefully into the arts of reproduction. (Burke will later review recorded music.)

Into this realm of the performance Burke enters in the pages of The Dial in 1928, “decidedly,” with:

misgivings. And one’s resolve to learn docent is an inadequate apology to others. Nevertheless, Mr Rosenfeld having called for a sabbatical year and Mr Gilman having at the last found it impossible to take his place, we enter by a non-sequitur, thought never for a moment forgetting our office as makeshift. (“Musical Chronicle” [1] 536)

The voice is familiarly energetic and somewhat distanced, formal in its defensiveness. This is the regular Burke of The Dial, the familiar performer, stepping into a new ring by making that step seem somehow unexplainable, a “non-sequitur” of events, and clearly temporary. The move, our taking the first words of Burke as a fair signpost, is fairly essential Burke: the voice that takes up a new position, declares itself in fact a familiar voice, then proceeds to offer, in spite of this, confident guidance.

Burke then drops the apologetic tone (and here forward I offer fairly copious quotations from the first chronicle, since it is not readily accessible, and has not been reprinted in full) and jumps into the business of taking on the phenomenon, the challenge of understanding music:

But to the Inventory. Music as a substitute for religion, a secular mysticism, belief without theology . . . . Music as orgy––or music as a mechanism. . . .  Music elements do conflict and later submit. Minor disputes become reconciled in larger entities. Themes, first introduced tentatively, may grow powerful and assertive as the whelp ripens to lionhood. Their character, from phase to phase, may be transformed . . . .In the weldings and modifications, there is even the record of revision—and thus the result is all the more like a process of creation. (536)

Besides the sensitivity to process, or a narrative of converging positions, or “weldings,” a suggested dialectic, is the stepping-off point for these early observations as his first line of “inventory”: “The greatest of composers, it seems, have been given to describing the mentality or inspiration of their works, and have not hesitated to use for this purpose the vocabulary of heroism” (536). We can be sure that Burke will consider the texts, even the performances, of music as driven by, or starting from, the composer. The modernist impulse, as complex as it will become in Burke’s view, is here in the first chronicle posed as singular and derived from the work of a unitary consciousness.  Indeed: “This we should take into account. Yet to an extent they may have been handling a technical phenomenon in a lyrical nomenclature” (536).

“Music as orgy.”  Perhaps, since he moves from the “mystical” sense of this phenomenon, its “heroic” or lyrical indescribability, to the other path: “to analyse a work technically. Note how the theme of the first movement reappears with a difference in the third!” Burke continues, making explicit one of the difficulties of writing about music as “talking about the emotion-machine with the vocabulary of suffering and salvation reduced to a minimum.”  Burke apologizes for this approach, this “anti-orgy” that will certainly not work for him: “Analyzing a work technically, one would (a) become quickly aware of one’s own lacunae in musical knowledge, and (b) attempt a task in which ignominy would be in direct proportion to efficiency.”  The foreshadowing of his warnings about scientistic discourse might be discoverable here, but, more importantly, it shows Burke’s predilection for the synthetic. Having set up these “only two possible alternatives” for the critic, he jokes that “with both of them eliminated, the wise critic will choose what is left.”

Which is . . . ? Perhaps not being a critic at all?  Sort of because, “one must turn to the music itself for the sterling experiencing of those moments wherein the medium of tones is most skillfully and magnanimously exemplified” (536). In short, there is no substitute. This can be read, too, as suggesting that “art for art’s sake” is an indirect way of suggesting the same thing: the aesthetic experience is in itself unduplicatable, in fact unsayable, and the burden of the “docent” is to guide. Nonetheless, Burke does not give in to this sort of ecstatic despair of the young critic, and adds, “We categorically refuse to be depressed at least in this, our failure to regive in another medium the equivalent of these wholly musical events.”

Burke has anticipated a commonplace thought, at least by Thelonious Monk’s time, who has had famously attributed to him the remark that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”; it is the less interesting of two responses Burke makes as critic. The second one—“failure to regive”­­­—can be seized upon as an admission of the parasitic role that criticism was, and is, assigned in relation to the art “itself.” But Burke anticipates this takeaway too and argues that instead of taking the third way as “silence” or “despair” one sees the way between the orgy and the anti-orgy as a synthetic middle way of a “second reading,” a “study”, a “pedantry” that follows “the pot aboiling”: “to expect of an audience a sustained emotional tension is to ask for nothing short of pathology” (537).

Burke sets out to produce a pedantic role for the critic, one that will create a meditative or reflective state in the listener: criticism becomes a part of “the class of the useful” by extending and transforming the aesthetic experience, from one primarily unreflective, emotional, filled with tension, into one of recollection and consideration.  Burke in this section employs an amusing anecdote:

I know an individual who, the first time he heard the Sacre, wept, choked, and suffered acute convulsions of the chest muscles at each irruption of the rhythm. On second hearing he was an old man, and sat motionless, stonily suffering the concert like an Indian scanning the horizon. He voted that it had failed—but perhaps it was this second man for whom Strawinsky was writing. (537)

Burke has moved the position of the critic into the encounter itself, so that it occurs after a first hearing, but during the second hearing. As Burke moves on, one is left with the impression that he has settled his identity comfortably within the circle of the artist and listener. There is no distance in time: tone and reading are simultaneous if not initially intertwined.

He moves into his second and third points of this highly engaged “Inventory” of his musical views. The first of these two: He disposes of the popular sense of there being a “classical-modern dichotomy” in short order. As a common issue of the 1920s in the arts or, more generally posed as a modern-traditional divide, Burke doesn’t so much deny the dichotomy as reduce it, a logical chronology of change, of understandable evolution over time that is only understandable in terms of its “pastness,” its having in its vocabulary the meanings of yesterday now penetrated by the percussion, the shock of the new word: “The values of a neologism depend upon the values of a language to which it is added”(538); the linguistical illustration is unavoidable, the tonal/verbal dichotomy perhaps one that Burke will never transcend or solve in this period of his criticism.

He extends the analogy: “Music is a vocabulary, and all vocabulary is subject to disruption into dialect. It is not the result of an aesthetic property, but purely through error in codification, that music has been thought of as “universal.’”  He explains that the lack of instructions in music (as heard, and which he will exploit a little later in The Philosophy of Literary Form) make the experience of music “irrefutable” and thus seemingly “universal” in its appeal. Taking the example of the idiomatic or dialectal within language, Burke sees music as a less audience-driven medium than verbal language:

The average musician seems to be much more of a Mallarmé than the average literator. But to an extent this dual purpose has always figured in art, the artist asking first that the audience divine his idiom and then, divining it, be influenced by it and obey its exhortations. And if this is so, if much of the work now being done is turned upon the development of the medium itself, then in these cases there must be more importance attachable to the creation of the idiom than to its subsequent exploitation for emotive purposes. (538)

Modern music would aspire to poetry, the self-reflexive, the idiomatic, local, blind to the audience. The “emotive purposes” of classical music have become recessive, its rhetorical force somewhat leveled out by the “sterile” inventions of the artists and musicians.

Burke pauses here before his final item of inventory to take a long view, to avoid condemning what seems to be an increasingly “trivial” pursuit of musical idiom, and firmly anchors the music that he has been listening to—and which he is about to critique in over a dozen pieces—as perhaps only “the vogue of the age” having only “a certain temporary importance” (537; 538). Coupled with his linguistical illustration of the dialectal and the idiomatic, Burke is of course displaying the unavoidable literary, metaphorical realm of this thinking about “the tonal” while not despairing about the subject’s refusal to stay centered—and also working an audience expectation that The Dial recognized: a growing sense of an American seriousness about its culture and its cultural events, its ceremonial aspect, its rhetorical force as an emerging ritual of cultural independence. Scanning the names of The Dial’s roster produces a list in British, Continental, and American art as the world opened up (before it abruptly crashed down on Burke and The Dial in a matter of months) to ideological and richly diverse literary conversation. It’s no wonder that Kenneth Burke, immersed in this conversation, would draw a line somewhere mid-way, as if to say, “This but not this, that but not that,” and, like Vygotsky, “This is only new in relation to the old, which we leave within.”

The last of his three inventory notes, before the leap into “specific concert criticism”, is the problem of pure music.  Another issue, more for the theorists, critics, and musicologists than for a general audience, was whether or not music had anything to do with telling a story, or with anything we associate with story: plot, characters, place, time, or the representation of those things or elements. Of course, vocal music raised no such question, and was now clearly diminished to a kind of crypto-secular concert event for the general populace, the province of popular and folk song, both ignored in The Dial except for a negative tone in dealing with George Gershwin. More interesting was the rise of interest in opera: a fully-realized narrative, fully integrated with not only vocal and instrumental music—but orchestral music as well.

Burke poses a common ideological conflict, most famously captured in Eduard Hanslick’s essay “On the Musically Beautiful” in 1854: how does music carry information, or can it at all, and if so, can it be put to specific use? Hanslick himself was of the “purist” camp, which saw itself as formalists who considered music a separate aesthetic, without tether or bond to language or its formal constraints. Orchestral music in particular, having no allegiance to church or court, could exist outside the constraints of representative tonal constructions. As Burke puts it in his first Dial piece: “Tone seems to share the pudency of pigment at telling a story, or at least at avowedly doing so” (539). Just so: like visual art, music’s force lay outside having to subject itself to the verbal. Burke’s qualifier “avowedly” reminds us that we can always say that a piece of music “reminds” us of something, or “seems to represent” something. But its intentionality is, according to those in the purist camp, anti-intentional––that is, without explicit reference to the pre-existing real.

The popularity of opera, on the other hand—which Hanslick did not like, especially as Wagner made it—suggested to critics that the programmatic in orchestral music was unavoidable, and that the opera simply made this representational power more explicit, dramatic, brought it to the fore, and unapologetically used vocal music to underscore the power of the tonal to meld with the verbal to make great, lasting art. Burke in this last item of the Inventory takes a long view, working first from the obvious example of Beethoven and the 18th Century composers who

seem to have depicted their storms and furies literally; and though the results are highly conventionalized, much closer to minuets than to a ride of the Walkyrie, and perversely neither so loud nor so discordant as they easily could be, they are none the less “programmatic.” Beethoven’s sixth and seventh symphonies are clearly on the edge, if not of the literal, then of the metaphorical. (539)

Burke was about to write pieces on Hindemith, Schonberg, Harris—but also Copland, Stravinsky, Gershwin.  What to do with a perceived binary that Burke saw opening in this heated cultural and critical discussion about the ontology of music?

One response would have been that of Nietzsche’s, expressed only forty years earlier (and then complicated twenty years after with the German philosopher’s attack on Wagner): Nietzsche writes, in The Birth of Tragedy, of “something never before experienced struggles for utterance,” of “the emotional power of the tone, the uniform flow of the melody, and the utterly incomparable world of harmony” (40). Burke may have found here an expression of the autonomous distance that music inhabits, and which now presented itself to him as one path for the music critic.

But Burke was not sure of the lines between this pure music and the other, the “impure.” Burke invokes “the operatic aspect,” music’s ability to tell a story, to be literal, and quotes Roger Fry, that “In all music lurks the opera” an apology for those who will find story where there is “less obvious” literality:

So the ambition to write pure music might mean one of two things: to give us either pieces which recommend themselves as embodied treatises on musical method, or those in which the operatic aspect is a little less obvious than it was heretofore. The usual result probably contains something of both: the original representative (or realistic; or impressionist!) element being present, but subjected to a purely musical destiny. (539)

The position Burke takes up here is for engagement: there is no such performed purity, given that the composer works in the conditions of the everyday, except that a “treatise” is “sterile,” a mere experiment in musical theory. What takes front and center on the popular stage is an array of music that can be variously placed upon a continuum of representation––a “more or less” in its obviousness to suggestion, indication, intention––but which, over time, becomes less so, less situated or indicative, and more “pure” as the listener encounters the music in more distant times and places from the time and place of its creation.

And so Burke embarks on his first sustained critical voyage into music. Fourteen short pieces follow, and then cross the many-scored wall of the crash of 1929. In his “Curriculum Criticum” of 1967, Burke begins his self-overview, in terms of publications, with Counter-Statement (with which “Curriculum Criticum” was re-published in 1968), first published only two years after the last “Musical Chronicle”:

Counter-Statement shows signs of its emergence out of adolescent fears and posturings, into problems of early manhood (problems morbidly intensified by the market crash of ’29). The role, or persona of the author seems not that of father, or even of brother, but of conscientiously wayward son (whom the Great Depression compelled to laugh on the other side of his face). (213)

These “adolescent fears and posturings” are perhaps on best display in Burke’s neat Inventory of three issues that he decides to pose and fix in his first four-page work on music. Music as new religion, music as modern, and music as pure are pretty bonbons, or deadly provocations, tossed in the air for a typically cutting quick treatment by the “wayward son” (so self-labeled, and suggestive of the intellectually rebellious spirit he was associated with for decades).

But Burke continues and, characteristically, jumps with conscious incongruity to the opposite shore, where he criticizes this neat description of his role: “. . . he soon came to see that any such orderly unfolding of the past into the present would be greatly complicated, if not made irrelevant and even impossible, by the urgencies and abruptnesses of social upheaval” (213). While not referring directly to his first attempt at a theory of music, I think we can include its “orderly” inventorying of a history of musical development, and a half-handful of issues, as falling under that reference; and we can also see how “social upheaval” shakes the critical core of the young Burke—not to drive him away from the project, to make it “irrelevant” or “impossible,” but “greatly complicated” (213).

A month later, he tackles Bach and Stravinsky.

Chapter Two: Encounters at The Dial

“The hazard of specific concert criticism” is Burke’s phrase for describing what he will face on a monthly basis for The Dial. His inventory has come to a close, and like the clerk who has surveyed his store room and taken down numbers, he is ready to move into the market.

We don’t have a promise of music criticism, just concert criticism. This is a significant choice, favoring performance, event, encounter, process, the appreciable, manifest audience—over what might have been construed, if posed as “music criticism,” to be the reading of sheet music, the work in suspension, the dry and technical over the drama of the happening—its features, it players, the exigencies of a rainy night, or the beauties or shortcomings of a venue. Polo Grounds. Carnegie Hall.

“To analyze a work technically” as he has offered as one choice in the inventory is to miss all that, particularly if one is, as Burke insists he himself is, unable to handle the discourse. Instead, Burke synthesizes as he anticipates: “the music itself  . . . the sterling experiencing of those moments wherein the medium of tones is most skillfully and magnanimously exemplified” (537). Of course, what Burke is describing here is not the music itself, but the music encountered. Burke is trying to create a sense of music as “itself” only in its performance, a willful sort of paradox that can be understood best as the result of not only an unwillingness to talk of “technicalities” but also the willingness to see music as embedded in contexts that are inseparable from its nature. That is, “music itself” requires human eyes, ears, and hands for it to be music made; anything less is a field of abstracted symbols. And so the encounter with music is the music itself: we are part of it in so intimate a way as to blur the sound as having any source other than our own sensitivities before, during, and after the event itself.

The audience is called “the voice of God itself”: Burke will resort to hyperbole at times to underscore the power of the concert to judge not only musicians but music and listeners as well, but it is in the fashion of getting at the importance of history, of music come and gone, that he hints at the power of identity in our first encounters:

Unless some fresh and greater glow can be contrived which does not too much endanger the style, any previous enthusiasms must be felt to invalidate the present one. The sole possible procedure is lame, but necessary: first to insist that the earlier praises arose, to some extend, faute de mieux; to abjure, then become a new man. (“Musical Chronicle” [6] 445)

Or, is this mere fashion? After all, he is speaking of Strawinsky (a spelling he eventually adjusts). Stravinsky is the dominant figure in Burke’s music criticism, and by the tone of Burke’s music criticism the dominant figure of the new music, a new ceremony of sound. Stravinsky, by this time of late 1928, is past the Sacre du Printemps. To be past that titanic work, considered by many critics to be a sort of apocalyptic end to music, where could he go? Burke wonders aloud in the passage above: if one has the Sacre in him, what can anything beyond it mean?

It is merely the Oedipus Rex this time, the Boston Symphony in New York, and in a moment Burke creates an identification between the audience and the artist in what could possibly be motive: we have a “weedy plenty” against which “People presumably still search for some mechanism—Freudian, gymnastic, or anaesthetic—to loosen their utterance” against the standard of the Sacre and other landmarks of new music. Oedipus is suddenly “hushed” with “that sense of the impending, of overhanging fate” that might be “the constant admonition which the author had imposed upon his own methods” (446).

Burke, in some despair of the weight of this recent history upon his critical back, asks, rhetorically, “Who has found a metaphor, a new toot, that can proudly go and sit with all the other metaphors, the other toots?” (446)

In hindsight, the burden that Burke writes of is comical, but at the same time indicative of his immersion in the importance, the need to hear “the voice of God” at such a time as it would seem that a voice had gone, too soon “thwarted” (446). One can accuse Burke of sampling the evidence—of considering concerts the end-all of music, even as recorded music was gaining everyday popularity (he would later review recordings)—and also of looking too quickly into the oppositions between a great work and its antecedents. The latter case is painfully true in the works of literary critics, of course, which have to somehow deal with the career of writers who, after producing a masterwork or one thought to be, create something far lesser. How does one then deal with the earlier work? Do we have to revise opinions with the enlargement of the horizon? With the diminution, somehow, of the artist’s vision?

And so the “voice of God,” the audience’s response in immediate communion with the performance of the work, is commingled with the “toots” of performance, each one looking to “sit with” the others. Besides the mixing of metaphors, there is here the interesting reversal of rhetorical perspective: God speaks back to the “toot” of a Stravinsky.  If nothing else, the passage suggests that Burke is as much interested in responses to art as he is in their production.

Indeed, in his evaluation of George Gershwin, Burke suggests that the “toot” of the composer may entirely deflate the audience’s expectations for the power of the work to be art, to have specific characteristics that separate it from (if not alienate it from) the everyday. In an early chronicle (his term for his reviews, a suggestion of an everyday jotting or recording of events), Burke balances aesthetics with economy, and finds Gershwin to carry “artistic economy” “to its farthest limits—to economy of musical excellence” (“Musical Chronicle” [11] 177). He needs a reason to go to a concert that transcends the cheerful, the humble, the coquettish—all terms for Gershwin’s economy of expression. Burke will privilege, at this stage, the grandiloquent, or what he calls in his Inventory “a secular mysticism.” (535). Gershwin would seem to evince or evoke only a squandered awareness of the street or the sound of the folk, the “familiar”:    

An American in Paris was not good modern music watered—it was bad modern music improved. It represented the bringing of considerable thought to the sort of thing that comes up the airshaft. Thus we may find an element of wholesomeness in the recognition that was accorded it. (“Musical Chronicle” [11]177).

The music “that comes up the airshaft” is casually, unavoidably heard music, not listened to, only noted and put aside, in the background, in the underground of one’s consciousness. This cannot be great music if it is encountered so casually, as he believes Gershwin has so constructed it. (But this is not an anti-American-music stance; Burke will praise Copland, Harris, Sessions, and Ives.)

It is not good to be casual about one’s Art, or the performance of it. Not only can one avoid the “airshaft” as a place of encounter, one may actually find that the audience can be “separated from [the performer] by a wall of sound-proof glass, so that her problems and her triumphs could be observed as a purely mimetic event, without the production of any tones whatever” (176). The encounter of audience and performer, or performance, must be a fully realized one of full consciousness, of eventfulness, of the ceremony of which Burke writes is “indigenous to music” (“Musical Chronicle” [1] 537).  Burke invokes God again, this time in reference to Delius’s Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra: “The work, like the Deity, has been praised in terms of negatives; and thus we have, for our admiration, the formlessness, the absence of climax, the lack of excitement, all of which can be found without going to concerts at the Philharmonic” (“Musical Chronicle” [11] 176).  Besides the churchly metaphor of the Philharmonic being a sacred space that validates the negatives, Burke’s words contain here a real sense of the ceremonial power of “going to.”  Recordings of classical music were relatively new in 1928; for only a year or so were they being sold and circulated. That particular power—of having the music “coming to” you­­­––was yet to be a counter-thrill among the masses. Instead, the “going to” was part of an expectation of clearly bounded creativity (in one’s presence), for which the invoking of God or the godlike would not only be in naming the audience, and the work, but the performer himself.

In these first fourteen pieces of music criticism, the performing star is Arturo Toscanini above the rest, or he who would shine brightest in the New York music scene for Burke.  He is mentioned several times, and enjoys a particularly grand entrance in late 1928: “It was on the two thousand, two hundred and seventy-second concert of the Philharmonic that Toscanini, having found in the course of his season certain pieces which had delighted beyond the others, played them all on the one evening” (356). In those performances, or conducting of those performances, Toscanini manages to “telescope” the natural and the mechanical—a summer’s day and a locomotive—so that the latter is “as lyrical as the summer’s day, presenting an anthology of the most erudite utterances of which a locomotive is capable—and there is nothing here to suggest the irritability underlying the Sacre” (357).

If one must compare, compare to the Sacre! And in Respighi‘s Pines of Rome, Burke attributes the effectiveness of the crescendo as “indebted” less “to the imaginativeness of the composer than to the tact of the conductor’ (357). It is Toscanini’s “rheostat” that can make the music remind Burke of “the death-bed scene in drama” (“Musical Chronicle” [5] 357).  The composer here takes a kind of inferior position to the “reader” figure of Toscanini—albeit a mechanical engineer who “reads” with a masterful tact—who brings the work to fruition.

A month later, Toscanini is Burke’s primary figure again, under whose performance Beethoven’s Sixth “loveliness” is made “magnificent,” “disclos[ing] a wealth of effects which it would be disquieting to hear happen and vanish so quickly did we not have the naïve assurance that the same sequence could be repeated” (“Musical Chronicle” [6] 447). The next year, 1929, Toscanini has seemingly grown into the God-like figure that cleaves one’s tongue to the roof of the mouth—“we found Toscanini again present, found ourselves inarticulate at the splendour of his Mozart”—but who suddenly has cause to make Burke “aggressively diffident” at Respighi, so that Burke can only despair at these “two major aspects of being a professional” (356). He ponders the meaning of this swing, these opposites of the critical enterprise creating in him not only “girlish hopefulness” but a longing “for confirmed silence” (356). His answer, always only tentative, is that “if music has a purpose, that purpose is to give us the opposite” of “multiplication” (“Musical Chronicle” [13] 356).

There are other stars, gods in his encounters, though somewhat lesser than Toscanini.  In many passages Burke describes not only the physicality of music and its production, but a sense of Modernist embrace of the spiritual in the same moment, the negative of complexity found in the singularity of the master, at times Koussevitsky, who also achieves this subtraction of effects so that the rhetorical consequence is rather less of musicality than verbal gesture:

By Koussevitsky the ideation was subtracted; one saw merely the emergence of the composer’s subject from among a host of knowingly handled themes; the Independence Day riot was totally eliminated, and in its place we were allowed to watch a skilful musician at work. The result was a much deeper tribute. (357)

The passage, from a mid-1929 review of Ernst Bloch’s America, is a comparative evaluation of two performances, the latter, Koussevitsky’s, having far less emotion or attention-grabbing flamboyance, than the earlier performance by Walter Damrosch. The “deeper tribute” is evidently the result of the conductor’s refusal to play to emotion, eliminating the “riot” episode in favor of more reflective passages. Burke returns to his theme of music as more than emotional response, of a recurring though evanescent patterning of joy or sorrow—so that what results, instead, is a consecutive response of the heart and mind. The second listening, in the hands of a great musician like Toscanini or Koussevitsky, is indeed folded into the first, its consecutiveness creating in the moment a “deeper tribute” that has as its dignified trace the “religion” of music that is not reduced to the “emotion-machine” he discusses in his first piece, the “Inventory.” Rather, Burke describes, in the same review as the Koussevitsky triumph, the Modernist composer Roy Harris, who is “scrupulous in take no theoretic step which he does not duplicate by the imagination,” in which music “is readily adjusted to formal and emotional variety, a variety which still permits us to feel the consistency of the whole” (“Musical Chronicle” [13] 357).

What Robert Wess calls Burke’s “aesthetic humanism” of this period is on full display in the music criticism for The Dial. The work needs “wholeness,” it needs both logical and emotional power, it needs to arise from a distinctive imagination entwined in an intelligence that transcends its abilities to construct a performance of mere “enthusiasm” into something that recalls a tradition, even as it extends the narrative of that tradition into the new, into a dialect that furthers the tradition’s filiations.

In the “Inventory”, Burke likens a symphony to “somewhat a book of genesis,” a “triumph over chaos.” This is the artist deified again, bringing light into the dark, order into the mess of modern life, making its sensible, sensual to the audience who is also somehow speaking in the storm of the performance with the “voice of God.” The discourse appears to be meaningful, but meaningless as well: a ritual of voices, raised, transcendent, but speaking of nothing in particular, only making sound.  What is this voice of God, then?

In his last review for The Dial, Burke still wrestles, with words and gestures, this duality of the theoretic and the imaginative, the large and small, the neat and thick, the emotional and the logical, with words and gestures. The passage is worth quoting in full, in part because it concerns Wagner, in this case in relation to Debussy. Wagner was one of Burke’s subjects later in the career here he appears as the seed of Burke’s emerging ethic of dignity against (or upon) his aesthetic:

Opera is naturally a semaphoric thing—its plot should be signaled to the audience, whose participation is not constant, but momentarily overcomes their sense of aloofness. Perhaps Debussy went much farther than Wagner in eliminating this tragic distance, for despite the exceptional emotions which he invokes, his effects are intimate. He does not confront us; he surrounds or permeates us, utilizing for his appeal a fluctuant method that relies more upon our sensibility than upon analysis.

It is, perhaps, the logical conclusion of opera—the progression from wooden conventionalizations to fluidity, from the stressing of aesthetic propriety to the stressing of emotional effectiveness. Yet I should not venture far beyond the assertion that our recent contemporaries have vilified aesthetic propriety with over-glibness, forgetting that if we define art in terms of emotional reality, the scantest life is superior to the fullest masterpiece. Which it is, but not as art. We have liked in music its inevitable stylization, the fact that it simply cannot speak without posturing— (“Musical Chronicles” [15] 538)

The dualities noted in the “Inventory” find some convergence in opera, naturally, in its cohabitation of lyric, melody, and narrative. It would seem to take center place later in Burke’s music writing, if only (always) briefly. Opera is plotted in human terms, not in the theoretic terms of music, and has lyrics, and symphonic riches. It would seem, as it seemed for Nietzsche, to have a mastery of many forms, to have the potential for a masterful form of visual, linguistical, and musical arts. Burke seems in this passage to be arguing for the appeal of opera to be based on its artifice and on its naturalness: the aloofness of the audience is overcome by the emotive content, the ability of the opera to overcome the aesthetic distance the artifice of the constructed narrative, its agreed upon conventions, wooden in their mechanical consecutiveness.

Yet, the opera has the formlessness of pure music; too, it’s freeing passages of symphonic “fluidity.” Burke argues that, between Wagner and Debussy, we have two artists on a continuum of musical art, one trending to the theoretic or analytical, the other immersed in the emotive. Together, they stake out the powers of music to ponder and to dream.

Nevertheless, if Debussy is ascendant here, the immersion of dream, and the power of emotion to define reality in terms of feelings, of intuition—then Burke distrusts this power at once, and warns that to seek this result in the encounter with art is simply unethical, becomes mere escape from a reality. In the world of late 1929, it is succinctly put as that of the “scantest life”: the body under the wheel, the rag in the mud.  This “scantest life is superior to the fullest masterpiece.” Here the future sociology of art as subject or frame for Burke takes at least a practice flight. He elaborates on that life as understood as mere feeling, as if pity or sympathy are present in the street, in every scant life but almost wholly uncapturable by art as art. We save that understanding, in other words, for the work of every day.

Instead, the work of Art at that time is to acknowledge its relation to “life” as affording life a place to become not devalued but re-shaped, formed, through “stylization” into a medium of posture. This posture, in turn, stands for the attitude (literally, if thought of as the inclination of the body, either standing or in repose) of the artist toward his subject. The “masterpiece” is not seen, then, as something superior to the ‘scantest life” but as comprising both life and posture: two lives, no longer scant and full, but speaking with the power of their reality merged.

The formula flies quickly over a sense of the “inevitable” rhetoric that would suffuse language theory in the 100 years to come. Burke is only suggesting here what would become explicit: To posture is to be.

Chapter Three: Story and Summation

Almost all of Burke’s short stories were published in the 1920s; the standard collection is still The Complete White Oxen: Collected Short Fiction of Kenneth Burke, published in 1968, which has the original 15 White Oxen stories and three more, two of which are earlier pieces and the third that was written much later and published in 1957 as “The Anaesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell.” Any attempt at chronology, either within or among the author’s overall production of work in or about music will be frustrated by formal considerations, as well as by publishing histories.  In general, however, the stories were written before the first music criticism began to appear in The Dial, although some overlap is most likely. The stories appear far in advance of the later criticism that appeared in the Nation in 1934 through 1936. While this study has already violated a natural chronology by working first with the full-blown music criticism of The Dial, it declares a second violation by jumping to the last story published as a part of the collection revised in the 1960s.

The rationale of this forward view (with backward glance) is that only “The Anaesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell” has anything profound to say about music, as opposed to the allusive content of music in the earlier stories, in which music appears sometimes as illustration or as part of the scenic or ecological content. The early stories instrumentalize music but don’t analyze it as central to the scene, as do the critical pieces. A second important reason for this jump is that Burke, by the 1950s, has very little to say about music as music; indeed, the near-disappearance of the subject is a part of the mystery the current volume hopes to offer and perhaps understand.

Yet this “final” story (in the collection, if not in fact) offers an analysis of music’s function as both dream-stuff and the creative consciousness and as sustained as anything in the early criticism. One cannot make a generalization about “return” here, but it might be that Burke’s isolated creative work here (creative by genre, not thought) recalled the early critical work as well, or the whole creative fervor of the 1920s in which he played such a wide-set part.

“The Anaesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell” is the object itself of critical examination by the author in the later edition of the complete stories. Burke lays out a “’schematism’ (to use a deliberately unwieldy word)” by which he tries to summarize much of his early work in story form, in which the physical realm is “attendant” to the non-physical realm, with the “symbolic emerging as a bridge or blurred potential between the two—and, finally, in which the plot demands of a story are meant through the return of the scapegoat.” So much for the “scheme” which is, according to Burke, influenced by the German erziehungroman, named as the dialectic of Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Pater’s “moody treatment of ideas” and, for later Burke, Hesse’s Bead Game.  In all, Burke sees “Herone Liddell” as his way to “extricate a plot out of aphorism” (Complete White Oxen, xvi).

There is nothing here that suggests the role of music in storytelling, but the reference to The Magic Mountain may recall the uses of music to conjure ghosts, literal and figural, from the minds and memories of the inhabitants of the sanitarium. In The Magic Mountain, music is a medial bridge between the man-made phenomenon of the reproduced sound and the recalled lives of others, ghosts that arise out of thin air like the wavering tinny sound of a Chopin nocturne on an early wax cylinder.

But that is our only clue, extrinsic to the story but supplied by the author, that there may be music in it and, as Burke calls it in Counter-Statement, purely formal in its ability to remain informationless and for all that, perfect in its clearing the treetops and floating beyond human care, if not human need. Liddell, in the hospital for an operation—to fix a hernia––is beset by revelations of mind-and-body dialectic as he moves into and out of his anaesthetic, one evidently of pure feeling, one of pure language: he looks for a Perfection of the two, a dialectical convergence of one with the other in such a way as to erase the hyphenate of mind-body:

Were there certain resources of language, driving us towards a purely linguistic fulfillment, as though towards the origin of everything? A terminology had certain logical conclusions implicit in it, certain possibilities, or “perfection”—and for a symbol-using species maybe these can form as real a kind of ultimate purpose as any congeries of material things and physical sensations. (281)

Burke also mines the familiar—though by the time of his writing the story, quite retrospective—of the pun, the attitudes, and the material embodiment of identifications within “socio-political communities.”  But Liddell is most concerned with developing a “transcendence of these parts of understanding,” “a kind of ‘transcendent entitlement,’ since its unifying function is in effect an addition to the elements it unifies” (291). The use of “in effect” does not mean “approximately” but the rhetorical effect of the act: the produced results of this “fusion or transcendent elements creating a bigger thing that still comprises all thee previous elements.”

What could this bigger thing be? Some new form, but still a form to be recognized, but such a form as to impress upon the maker and the viewer that in the form are the possibilities of the not-quite-present. Burke significantly turns to music in an extended analogy, produced here in full:

Suppose you are a musician—and of a sudden, a likely them occurs to you. You awaken—and there it is. And somehow it is like an unopened bundle of possibilities.

Maybe this theme appeals to you because of its hidden relations to some other theme—a theme that you may have actually heard, or all-but-heard, many years ago, in some situation that then seemed to you vaguely laden with some such futurity as you now experience clearly. The theme thus looks back to an earlier time when you were vaguely looking forward (in effect fumbling with the beginnings of a word, a class name which you would need later, when you came to classify this later actualizing experience under the same head as the earlier potential experience).

Next, you proceed to develop variations on your theme. Successively, you make it brisk, playful, plaintive, pensive, solemn, grandiose, nostalgic, muscularly ingenious, and the like.

On the surface, at the very least you have produced a form by carrying a principle of consistency into an area that threatened it with disintegration (disintegration insofar as the principle of consistency risked becoming lost in the variety). But insofar as you have succeeded, you have unified this variety.

And have you not done still more? For insofar as your theme originally welled up from a secret personal relationship to situations that, however tinged by symbolism, were themselves largely outside the realm of symbolism (as the thing tree is outside the realm of the word “tree”), you have saturated this whole range of the symbolic and the non-symbolic with a single personal motive, summed up in the attitude-of-attitudes that was implicit in your theme (which would be the musical equivalent of a title-of-titles).

Thereby you have had, in effect, an immediate vision of an ultimate oneness (thanks to symbolic manipulations that have brought many disparate things together). You have had the direct feeling of this principle. You have “got the idea.” (291-292)

There are, of course, many echoes of the “Lexicon Rhetoricae” here, of consistency and variety, of pattern and disparity. And it is in Counter-Statement that Burke has made his first aesthetic principles clear.  He later argues that the stories are pre-Counter-Statement in their working out the “oneness” of the invention of art as it brings together the mind (psychology), the word (eloquence), and form (appetite).

But why music at this critical juncture of this late story, in which the hero presses for “oneness”? For “perfection” (with which we are rotten, given a later codicil)? For a contradictory brake on this will to perfect, out of which comes imbalance, even a ecological disaster, empire-building: the mere over-reach of the superabundant ego?

Liddell looks to poetry and the poet, to John Keats in particular, for answers to this unanswerable question about the human condition (or infinitely answered, but for Liddell, in essence, the deflation, the solution through the scapegoating of one who would find himself having to ask the questions in the first place). Keats allows Liddell to understand the world as Coleridge does as the place where “extremes meet” (299). The dialectic of Gallantry and Ecology—of the one and the many—finds a formal sense of unity.

Kenneth Burke can refer to the 1920s in Counter-Statement as the time when he was a young man, thinking young thoughts, and creating the somewhat rebellious words of Counter-Statement in response to the conventional statement. Even in this outline there is a counter positioning, of course, of a gallantry as posed against an orthodox (however new, but sung by a chorus of young aesthetes). It could, in fact, be the schema of Burke’s entire life of encounters with orthodoxy and his constant pushing back, pushing away, and reformulating traditional thoughts with the new, creating thereby an ecology of extremes. This ecology will never hold and, in Burke fashion, constantly undergoing revision, re-examination, restatement, counter-statement.

Seemingly buried in this metaphysical last story of the collected stories is the sustained analogy of the musician and his music. How better, for Burke, than to recall Stravinsky, Barber, Debussy—those whom he experienced in his youth—as the masters of both dream and technique, of “possibilities” and manipulation that prefigures the ultimate revelation of Herone Liddell?  The dying Keats may serve as the chosen illustration of the “gallant” scapegoat, but it is the unnamed musician and his music that creates for Burke and his reader the full sense of process, of a lifetime experience of “theme and variation” that recalls the music criticism of thirty years earlier in tone, but goes beyond in marrying it to Burke’s later meditations on the relation between the human and the natural.

The “single personal motive” still exists for Burke in 1957: the “single personal motive” that is so extremely contrastive, as he argues Coleridge would have it, as it exists in the figure of Toscanini at the Polo Grounds, unproblematized then, attacking the score, pulling emotion up out of notes on a page, and horsehair on strings, and fingers on keys. Like a dream, the 1920s swirls dark and wet, and rather dismal around the critic; “Catastrophe” somehow small in the weather of a bad day or as prophetic of economic collapse. Still, the masterful figure, gallant, stands forth with the force of a religious figure, taking ritual into the realm of the emotional.

In 1957, however the single personal motive exists for Burke, the music is no longer the revelatory explosion it was when hearing Stravinsky for the first time—or even the second time as he relays the anecdote of the friend who barely nods the second time through Sacre du Printemps.  Instead, “To think words by the seaside is like hearing music from a distance. (Even a trivial tune, floating at night across waters, seems a bit fate-laden).” Herone Liddell is reminding himself that, for all its symbolic power, language gives way to death and its agents of physiology and ecology: death here broadly understood perhaps as being struck wordless by the meaningless language of other species, other spheres. In this passage, music has not lost its meaning—it never had one, which was its power—but it has lost its immediacy, its ability to surprise and galvanize as the concerts of Koussevitsky and Toscanini did in the mid-20s.

But Burke is making the point through its parallel to language, which here too seems to be fading as the dying poet fades into the sounds of nature, the seaside. The story ends in the form of a letter from Herone, in which he “lay awake listening to the bluster of the climate. The rain slapped loudly, as it fell from the roof to the cement floor of the porch.” The sounds are not quite musical nor are they exactly without meaning: they inspire “some rhymes slightly deflected.”  Finally, in a further P.P.S., the scene changes: “To reach this front of sand-topped ridge, we drove over a sunny clop-clop bridge” (310). The rhymes give way to rhythm again, the interior language of pattern, whether by horse or car undesignated, but still recalling the young Burke’s initial excitement at there being some such pattern above all else—but now implicated into an ecology of rhyme and rain.

Before this summation of a life, the stories themselves from The Complete White Oxen, published between 1919 and 1924, show a modest range of interest in music—from the character of certain composers and composition to the music itself as engendering certain responses in audiences to the characters themselves who have intimate knowledge of music. It would be unwise to argue, however, that there is any great import, or critical weight, in these stories to think that we are really witnessing a foreshadowing of the critical work to come in just a couple years after their first publication in 1924. One can find, for example, a far greater interest in music in two of Burke’s pantheon, Nietzsche and Mann. Yet neither of these authors could be called music critics as it is fair to call Burke, not once but twice in his residencies at The Dial and the Nation.

Do these stories display a rhetoric of music, as do the critical pieces to follow only a few years later? I think that they do, if only sketchily, and only with the kind of hindsight that Burke used generously to understand the narrative of his own varied career as a thinker and writer—and only if we read the musical content as poorly-prefigured “ideas” placed in the way of a narrative movement as stones are on a path: to dimensionalize, to deepen, to slow down the walk, to give roundness to what were narratives of which Burke was not so interested in as stories but as vessels for other kinds of discourse. One was the nature and meaning of music.

In the title story, music is used as a tool of seduction of one man by another, Lucia di Lammermoor’s voices being used by the seducer to “reach [Matthew] out of the darkness” (31) and Carmen, which makes Matthew “vaguely happy” (32) as if music has the spell of magic, a not untypical understanding of the emotional reach of music, its formal powers arousing the appetite—but for what? In several of these stories it is the vague yearning for change, for something more. In “A Man of Forethought,” music is the opposite of lust or will: it is the quieting of those appetites, a cathartic pause of nerves, in which “there is a soft little thing of Debussy’s . . . . There is a lovely little minuet in Beethoven’s sonatas” (53).  Here, the classical piece cannot only be butchered into sections, bereft of its original form; it can also be the lull of a sleeping potion for him who is in love. John Carter is one of several musicians in the collection; he himself doesn’t write “gentle” music, but it is gentle music that will make him gentle, or so he believes.

Siegfried, in “Mrs. Maecenas,” is another pianist brought under the influence of the title character, who eventually throws him over for being too young, but who can listen to Siegfried play the “Moonlight Sonata” and warns in the story’s only long piece of dialogue,                                  

“No, Siegfried, you can say what you like about the beauty of asceticism; but after you have perverted and twisted and beautified to your heart’s content, at bottom the original thing remains.  . . . For your art’s sake, for America’s sake, you must get up and move. . . . The Muse is a woman, Siegfried, and the formula is that the worse you treat a woman the more she loves you. You may find that if you forget art long enough to live, your art may be all the stronger for it afterwards.” (74)

Music, in the story, serves as an emblem of the desiccated operations of the mind, as a thing that can serve as a withdrawal. Music is separate, even a kind of ruse in this story. A third musician, also a keyboard player, is the music instructor J. J. Beck of “Olympians,” who suffers a similar fate to Siegfried’s in that he associates music with the power to communicate in simple and clear terms, and yet is devastated when the student he is teaching receives no such message as he has intended—so brilliant, so “neat and white.” Beck believes the message to be loving and chaste, and Dorothy can only say, “How fine it was” and that is all. “He must annihilate Dorothy from his head” (91). If there is a rhetoric of music being advanced in these stories, it is the limitation that the form must place upon its performers.

One story, “My Dear Mrs. Wurtelbach,” Burke ascribes to a bet he made with Malcolm Cowley to do something “formally” different than the average story and writes in the introduction to the collection, “would somewhat proceed like the movements of a symphony” (xii). He refers to “qualitative breaks from one part to the next”; as we read today, these are stylistically clear as to a kind of a variation in register, or a Ciceronian scope of plain, middle, and grand. More interesting is the intention, not imbedded in the desire of a character to hypnotize or anesthetize using music instrumentally, but in a meta-fictive use as a structural device. Only here do we see a fair suggestion of the moments in “Herone Liddell” in which the gallantry of the artist—here Burke­­––is posed as potentially consubstantial with the ecological world. In “Wurtelbach” Burke hopes to unify the story with the symphony, not as opera might, and not as jazz might (which appears to be savaged in part 3 as the blindly-driven drivel of half-hearted musicians playing for people who are eating (140-141)) but as the artist’s rhetorical grasp might allow: a gesture of, according to Burke in the same introductory essay, “that disjointed kind of form” (xii). He self-deflates the gesture by referring to it as “neo-classical” a moment later, but the point, it seems, is clear even now: by invoking musical form, Burke is arguing for its rhetorical estrangement from that of the literary and/or the communicative, while asserting, nevertheless, that such a rhetoric was there, potent and present.

Chapter Four: The Novel and the Nation

Contrary to the sense of music that emerges in The Dial—a power apart from contemporary scene, but being molded anew by masterful figures for the immediate and emotional reception by a select and undifferentiated audience—the short stories (except for “Herone Liddell”), written prior to The Dial pieces, seem to view music in a different light. Music is never the subject, yet it becomes an agency of separation and anxiety, of nervous excitement. While not drawing too fine a line between two rather small samples of Burke’s overall output, the contrast suggests not so much a chronological shift in thinking as a more likely reflection of Burke’s pluralistic thinking on the function of art or the relation of art to society and its members.

The zeitgeist of the 1920s and New York City in particular seems to have been one of an almost ecstatic immersion in the heightened life experience—wherever that might lead: alcohol, drugs, art, the foreign, the exotic, the Other. Burke seems to have been himself thoroughly immersed in parts of this mood, yet with the doubled consciousness of the critic that could pull back and scratch his head at some moments and wonder if this immersion were merely a submersion of the intelligence in favor of some unwilled appetite.

I think it is most interesting that the critical pieces in The Dial are most uncritical of this mood or zeitgeist, this ethos of the moment, the punch of sound over the spaciousness of silence. It is in The Dial pieces that there is an enraptured entanglement with the classical composers, their profound and familiar harmonies, and excitement too with the emerging modern masters like Barber and Stravinsky, and above all a certain wonderment at the musicians and conductors themselves, who have somehow found a single direction in the rich wilderness of American culture in the 1920s. Conversely, the short stories manage to be critical of these tendencies to elevate music above the fray, to imagine that one could find “the song above catastrophe” in one’s daily experiences. We have, then, a kind of neurosis associated with music in which characters in the stories are disabused of their music, find it emptied of potency, find it an illusion of a community’s worth, or find it only an agent of deception. Only in “Herone Liddell,” written 30 years later, does music seem to find a dialectical comfort in Burke’s fiction.

We might hazard to conclude that The Dial criticism was less reflective, more immediate, more a journalistic enterprise for Burke, a series of quick and easy responses to another night at concerts and events like Toscanini at the Polo Grounds. How else to respond but wholeheartedly? Add a disclaimer about the stodginess of one movement or piece, and the critical ear presumably emerges. Overall, however, you have the highly intellectualized musings of a music fan deflected through the focus of the encounter with art itself.  On the other hand, we can conclude perhaps that the fiction is more suited for Burke’s Modernist leanings: that art is a problematical phenomenon in which its creator or adherent is simultaneously victimized and privileged by his or her proximity to it. We might also hazard that both forms are autobiographical in that they show Burke’s abilities to be almost comically identified with the music, in the criticism, and parsimoniously self-questioning in the fiction.

But of an underlying theme, dignity:  Burke’s only novel Toward a Better Life, written over a period of several years, from the mid-1920s and published in 1931, written during the same period he was writing music criticism, and written by chance so as to embrace the stock market crash at approximately the mid-point—Burke’s only novel is, I argue now, very much about dignity, a theme only glimmering in the short stories and music criticism.

Sorting through these three distinct forms—short fiction, criticism, and mainly the novel, all roiling about in their creation and revision during this period—is the subject first of this chapter before we move to his second body of music criticism, this time for the Nation.

The form of the novel seems least well suited to Burke’s intentions as at least stated in the preface to the second edition of Towards a Better Life, to situate the plot as emerging “from a background of aphorism, lamentation, invective, and other such rhetorical modes” (vi). The pastiche already overwhelms this novel’s articulated plot into the “anti-novel” that Burke also thinks it to be. As a plot, TBL is likened to Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, as “the end of the line” leading not to suicide but to, in Burke’s case, “the best possible of worlds” in which “the Comic Muse [is] its tutelary deity.”  While this reader has difficulty finding “plot” in TBL beyond the somewhat too-imaginary turns in the narrator’s mental state, what is more at odds with the novel form is the intention to display rhetorical modes in the process.

If this is what makes the novel “anti” to those of its time, then it succeeds minimally as a display of rhetorical power. But, as Burke admits in the same preface, “In the last analysis, a work of art is justified only insofar as it can give pleasure” (vii), then the novel is hardly a reading experience at all, but an artifact of a personal ritual of purification whereby Burke, through Neal, casts off ideas and desire through the power of his own articulateness, or facility, to a point where the mode of fiction is nearly washed away in the author’s career as well.

What is left for Neal, at least, is the question that the artist, facing the void, can utter if the distancing of rhetorical power allows it:

what voices would one hear were the mind to be plunged into total silence? Were he to say nothing, not even in his thoughts—were he to live in the stillness of a void—could he hear the cells of his body speaking? Might he distinguish the songs of the myriad little tenants in his blood, as we can contemplate the pulsing sound of frogs rising above a marsh? (218)

What are being heard, perhaps, aren’t other artifices or art, but the sounds of nature. Neal asserts earlier “there comes a time when one must abandon his vocabulary. For the rigidness of words, by discovering a little, prevents from discovering more” (216). The aphoristic section that concludes the novel is an appropriate form, especially given the rhetorical forms like invective that have preceded it and evidently driven Neal from the stage of his own plotting. This fragmentation of language—at least of its prosiness, the luxuriant abstractions of the early chapters that do at least attempt to plot Neal through a series of difficulties—is purposeful in displaying Neal’s withdrawal, and is captured better in the novel’s last sustained passage about music’s relation to the everyday, poised upon a razor’s edge of sensation and meaning:

How pleasant, after the strained hours I had spent recently in the coercing of my story, to place myself at the disposal of a master, to let him dictate when there should be risings and when subsidences. I assisted him—and together we mounted to assertion, capped by kettledrums. And as another evidence of my cunning, I left the theatre before the close of the performance, I went away while the violins were repeating a design in unison, ever more softly, and the stage gradually darkened, suggesting the submerged castle of a fish bowl and the mighty distances discoverable there by peering. I left before the end that I might carry away the sense of the opera’s continuing—and for several hours afterwards it seemed as though that vast battle were still in progress. I went from opera sounds to street sounds, but the imperiousness of the music was still strong in me, and every casual noise was translated into the perfect note most like it. Thus the city sang melodically and contrapuntally. (180)
Neal expresses some guilt at the marriage of these sounds, but does not withdraw them.

The role of the artist and his art is problematic in this passage, as it is in the musical chronicles he wrote for The Dial: on the one hand, music has its masters and its over-riding rhythms to sooth or to make savage, but on the other hand it must always give way to its situation, to a greater rhetorical field, whose noises are just as melodic as music, and whose discords are as powerfully contrapuntal to the aesthetic object encircled or perhaps left behind.

Burke captures this inevitable embrace of the mundane-after-art in the words of an anonymous scholar who visits Neal and wonders “if the day will come” when love joins us, as “speech, or happiness, or music” divide us: “people are set apart by art or happiness, just as one interrupts for a moment his exaltation in a concert hall to glance with scorn at a restless neighbor” (82). The scholar changes his mind in mid-speech, and disappoints Neal through his “aridity”, as if this ambiguity is not something to weep about—as the scholar does—but to take in, to inhale, as Kenneth Burke seems to do, as the contrapuntal fact of life that must be dealt with comically and with dignity.

This fact of life is earlier expressed by Neal in the coldest term of the both/and:

As the building of vocabulary admitted me to new fields of enquiry, even the work of the philosophers became an ill-poised and unclean thing. Art, letters, the subtleties of affection and longing, the sole factors by which some whit of dignity might have been made accessible, were surely the foremost causes of my decay. I openly identified myself with literature, and thus identified disgrace with literature. (35)

The scope of Neal’s quest for the pure form is only temporarily solved with his meeting  music in the great noisy city of New York; it seems to push him beyond “vocabulary” or documents or facts or philosophy in the form of Bach’s Passion, a part of the city’s “regiving of great music” so that “out of fear, malice, rivalry, and ill-natured interruptions, is drawn forth the denial of all uncleanness, a broad flowing river of assertion, its parts united in one purpose as it moves steadily toward seas of the mind which lie in a vague remoteness, surging imperatively for this exceptional hour” (137-138).

It is such an exceptional hour that later the interrupted opera and, even later, the aphoristic retreat into the music of nature would seem to signal an end to categorical statements about art and society, about music and the hearer—about there being any happy binaries like lover and lover, husband and wife at all.  One could ponder the glimmer of a post-structural Burke here, in which the initial separation of art from its obvious situatedness—for Burke—in the city is swiftly dealt with in Toward a Better Life: first, as a consolatory separateness, then as a site of conflict, and finally of irrelevance as the sounds of both street and melody become indistinguishable somewhere beyond the sounds of nature, “the songs of the myriad little tenants in his blood” (218).

Dignity is better served if sought elsewhere, not in the vocabularies, not in the city, not in the shrug of a fellow auditor at the opera, but to “Choose rather the dignity of a savage chieftain, which coexists with vermin” (200-201). Much like the protagonists of his short stories that find Art a prisoning of the self, its ecstatic belief in the power of the right choice grinding to a halt that very power of choice, Neal seems to look for dignity in the Ur-society of nature, among myriad beasts and creatures as the novel winds toward its aphoristic conclusion (and written post-Crash), that he “die as a mangled wasp dies—its body hunched, its wings futile, but its sting groping viciously for its tormenter” (201).

Burke is making clear that such a retreat into the primitive isn’t without consequence, of course: dignity is a coexistence with the lowest, perhaps, not the highest, and that dignity does not suffer the powerlessness of the man who cannot choose: there is the choice of the “vicious” seeking of the problem, in which there is “some ghastly decency” (201).  The novel ends in silence, as all novels do, but in TBL silence is an especially potent counterpoint to melody: the two converge in a dialectic of eventual convergence that might serve, at this point in Burke’s career, as a perfect synecdoche of the man’s mind as it turns this way and that, seeking purchase in a handful of genres that, at times must have seemed to rush together into one. In Towards a Better Life we are left with a grounded, though fluid, language: “the torrent” (219).

The first Nation column, in November 1933, begins with the faintly self-referential sentence about the music at hand, Schonberg. “In the first of this season’s concerts by the league of Composers, an all-Schonberg”: an announcement of Burke’s re-voicing the basic program of The Dial reviews: he will begin as the music begins, he will be aware of processes and programs, and he will be attending concerts, he will again attend to the great names (“Schonberg” 633).  These outlines are not unlike The Dial reviews, and would seem to suggest that Burke after four years has not altered his approach to writing about music culture, about its events and consequences for the discerning audience who, one imagines, sit down and read the review weeks later and—if having attended might say—“This recalls that event very well, and Mr. Burke has illuminated some of its features for me.”

Indeed, the “docent in retrospect” role of the critic has not changed. The vocabulary has changed, however, even in this first piece and reflects a historical shift and a personal rhetorical shift in Burke as well. Class consciousness is obviously on Burke’s mind as he denies that Schonberg can speak to “proletarian” expectations of “bluntness,” nor can he even provide “vanishing ‘bourgeois’ comforts,” but has become ‘introspective” in his (Schonberg’s) “marvels” (633).  One would not expect quite this simple dicing of the audience’s economic allegiances (or ideological labeling) in a piece six years earlier. Burke’s perspective has now become class-situated. Burke, here, is developing his earlier theme of the modern music versus the classical, finding a thread that locates them situated in history, but pushing this composer beyond the tradition into the ream of the new, even the future:

He moved to the next adjoining step, the conclusion that one might permit the same dissonances when the melodic characters were slightly less pronounced—and so on, step by step dissolving each objection by a cautious, rational extension, until the progressions by slight quantitative degrees had mounted up to produce a new musical idiom, qualitatively distinct. (633)

Technique can push content.  And so: “It is music of the future, to be sure, but the present would pass it by.”  He saves his parting comments on Schonberg, and whatever class allegiances Burke thinks that the music must entail for some of his most withering fire—earlier trained on Gershwin, a populist voice in the 1920s to Schonberg here, a voice of the preterit of the same decade. Burke first grumbles that the earlier work, the Opus 10, makes nods to the classical tradition, but this only compounds the composer’s error of making reference to “a line” and “older architectural patterns”:

I have heard more joyous kinds of fun. Alas! The rollicking tune was sick, it was dying, and it departed with a groan . . . .We go into thinner air—but what is more, we have been made willing, we are now fit for this attenuated region inhabited by moony beings which, if they speak at all, must speak with stringlike voices, and discuss disturbances we are still content to leave unnamed. It is an alternative world, but of a kind we should not care to see the real world duplicate. (634)

Even in this first piece, Burke sounds more conservative, yet in a way that places him not with some higher discourse of music theory—but with those who would judge music by its accessibility to the present audience, its esthetic response perhaps qualitatively affected by social situation, one that must hear a continuity of content, particularly of “real world” emotion, to respond, as Burke said it would, as “the voice of God.” There is no validity to being not of this world any longer—this seems in the first piece after years of absence, but of history, a real change in Burke’s aesthetics.  It’s no longer an achievement to be of that other world, to be separate, somehow universalized by patterns or rhythms; now there is, instead, a sense of imposed distance from the place that really matters: this place, the everyday.

Two months later, in January 1934, he accuses much of contemporary music of recalling, or re-constructing, the 19th century “Poesque” aesthetic of the “spell,” to “provide no ‘formal release’ for undoing what it had done to us. It would give us a realm of purgatorial moodiness to which there is a “way ‘in’ but no ‘way out,’ much as though one were to hypnotize a man and leave it at that, relying on his own natural resistance for the restoration of his non-hypnotic temper” (“Orpheus in New York” 53).  Again, there is a strange crossing of times and intentions here, suggesting to me that Burke is dissatisfied both with legacy and future: the contemporaries are recasting old, dissatisfying forms. In this case, the forms are such that the audience, again foregrounded as inhabiting Burke’s own sensitivities, is put under an unhealthy spell of no little duration. Burke laments this new “melancholy, an almost too Orphic ‘invitation,’ which can make us understand why even so musical writer as Plato would have banished the softnesses of music from his Republic” (53). In this second column of The Nation series, Burke reserves his praise for Bela Bartok, who shows great “authoritativeness,” who “finds many ways of keeping all his instruments going steadily about their business, all asserting themselves and not merely ‘helping out.’ One felt here the work of a skilled rhetorician, who could embark upon varied kinds of discourse with confidence” (54).

So much for softness; give us assertiveness, variety, confidence: some sort of rhetoric.

What sort of rhetoric—in music? One finds in his next column a partial answer, perhaps, as Burke mulls over an opera based on Gertrude Stein’s “Four Saints in Three Acts,” with music by Virgil Thomson. Opera is exerting its influence, as usual, but here it allows Burke to expound further on the tonal/verbal binary he discussed in The Dial columns: what meaning can there be in the tonal?  He answered, then, with the unavoidable metaphorical bridging of the tonal to the verbal. Given its performance in some situation, and for some audience, the tonal will always “recall” emotions as well as provoke them, and will anchor those emotional responses in the individual experiences of the audience members—or perhaps, now, several years later, their collective experiences.

Stein gives Burke the best of possible worlds, if the unavoidable operatic aspect is a part of the experience of music: the words will be nonsense at the same moment they are recognizable language: “Stein’s nonsense, as reinforced by Thomson, has established its great musicality. Even as nonsense it sings well; indeed, its very ambiguity may have prodded the composer to express its quality as utterance; it what was said was vague, en revanche it was said with extreme mobility of emphasis” (257). “Mobility of emphasis” is the re-individuation of a form—the expectation of sense—to such a degree that it loses its verbal form and becomes musical instead, mere morphemic sound that does not presage meanings through words any longer. The alchemy of words into music becomes, then, a demonstration, by absence as it were, the power of words as they have been vacated here: no sense, then no words, just sound.

In what sounds like mock celebration of becoming part of the growing audience for musical entertainment, Burke concludes by saluting how the Stein/Thomson collaborations work rhetorically on this fun-seeking audience:

as a piece of ingratiation—and all art in the end must ingratiate itself—I believe that “Four Saints” prevails [over a companion piece by Stokes and Hanson]. Perhaps it is one kind of light entertainment which all the world will some day care for, when a new day has imposed the privileges and problems of leisure upon all, and the wealthy patrons of this bounteous performance will have been generously admitted into the ranks of the spectacle-loving masses. (258)

A dig at the call for a re-distribution of wealth? Perhaps, but Burke is not calling for or against such thing—but merely envisioning what the future ‘spectacle” will be: massive in both audience and performance.

From his use of “proletarian” in the first column for the Nation, Burke has shown that the “social upheaval” referred to in the “Curriculum Criticum” has indeed infected the simplicity of The Dial columns in such a way as to re-position Burke’s rhetoric.  The first columns in The Nation show a clear awareness of historical conditions that were beginning to undermine the elitist tone of the earlier concert reviews, composer profiles, and theorizing on the “Inventory” topics. Now the audience is uppermost import, whether hypnotized or amused or baffled, positively entertained or knocked over by spectacle; it has become more visible, dominating Burke’s position or point of view. The audience is not only the “voice of God” as Burke maintained seven years earlier, it is also the arbiter of the encounter’s success, its rhetorical uptake—not only the aesthetic double-consciousness of emotion and emotion-recollected as the two-step critical view of The Dial pieces. Here, Burke shows awareness about changed expectations, about audiences growing in power and size, of the audience personality more than the composter personality, less about the venue—the Polo Grounds versus Carnegie Hall—as the state of the audience’s backbone. The Great Divide of the decades has been crossed, and now, as Burke writes Permanence and Change, there is less art and more sociology, less emotion and more consequence.  Thus, in the next column, for example in April 1934, he breaks from the concert regime of all of his previous columns and reviews two books, both having to do, Burke argues, with the state of popular culture in America.

Both books, Howard’s Stephen Foster, America’s Troubadour and Marks’s They All Sang: From Tony Pastor to Rudy Vallee, are for Burke a way to take on the commodification of song in America: “The art song, no matter how great its pretentions, falls clearly in the category of ‘business’” (484). Anyone searching the works of Kenneth Burke will be forgiven for regarding this passage as a kind of “Aha! The smoking gun!” of the case that argues Burke as an elitist, pompous apologist for all that was (and may still be) wrong about the high/low divide in American culture. The attitude suggests why Burke hardly ever wrote of popular music, and when, he did, the case against, for example, George Gershwin arises. But that was the 1920s—here in the 1930s Burke would still seem to be holding out for a high positioning against even the art song which he subdivides using Foster as a “purveyor of pleasant melancholy to millions” via the folk song, and Tin Pan Alley as doing the same, but in endless repetition: “An endless procession of agitated and unstable bohemians who quickly manufactured the raw materials of sentiment into salable objects” (485) whose “one aim . . . was to turn out a commercially useful product” (485).

The echo of Theodor Adorno’s charge of “pseudo-individualizations” is almost preternatural here. Burke reveals that originality is still a touchstone of great music, which the popular composers of the era do not have: “Any work that caught the public fancy was immediately followed by an avalanche of imitators, each of whom attempted to abstract the factor he considered most responsible for the success of the piece, and to put together a commodity which would exemplify this factor still more intensively” (485).

Popular songs would seem to feed the masses’ need for repeated pleasures of the same kind, and the folk song, which Burke sees lodged in Foster’s legacy, has to do with “things far away and long ago” (485).  Thus, the fountainhead of Foster and his degraded Tin Pan Alley dwellers are both caught in pandering to a mass demand for repetition and nostalgia.  The present has no movement, no mystery; the future is not interesting, not even real. What Burke has decided the masses have are the near-hypnotic delights of popular song, an atrophied form whose rhetoric is sickly, nostalgic longing for something past.

One can see, even at this stage of his career, that Burke is not moving so obviously in his perspectives from high aesthetic to one somewhat lower that he cannot take on, what he sees as the commodification of art for purely business ends; what occurred so often in aesthetic discussions of the 1930s—the sentimentalized heroism of the proletarian hero and his “art song”––will not be at all the same fare for Burke. He has a much more complex set of allegiances to forge. In his October 1934 column he argues that Hindemith is as much a function of Hindemith’s nation’s contemporary “psyche” as he is a musician or artist without boundaries or allegiances. He is something more; he is, in this time of a growing threat, an “integrative function” that art can perform upon its artists. This integrative function has to do with drawing together parts or features of a whole—Germany—that otherwise should not be brought together since the nation is now considered, as it is, dangerous. The threat will increase if there is a consequential art: one that seems rhetorically operable upon audiences beyond mere emotional or impressionistic grounds.

Burke, after praising Hindemith’s abilities, warns:

I might add my belief that great art always will be found to base its appeal  upon such a synthetic, or “coordinating” capacity, and that this function is regrettable only at times when psychological fusions serve to conceal economic division.  In other words, Germany is not now entitled to have a musician as capable as Hindemith, whose abilities can help to integrate a political attitude which requires disintegration. When there is need of revolution it is not until the revolution has occurred that the integrative function of art can fully operate without tending to obscure issues and alignments that should be sharpened. (“Hindemith Does His Part” 488)

The audience is being confronted, in other words, with a bigger picture than mere tonal content: the audience is being brought under the banner of nation as if the music is a synecdoche of nationhood. In certain times, this is good; other times, no. And when that nation is veering toward fascism, any consequence of art that would appear to coalesce with that spirit in tonal language is a synthesis of politics and art that—as rhetoric—should be not “entitled.”

What has caused this alarm in Burke?  Audience reaction, as God-like, in which a passage in Hindemith’s “Matthias de Maler”, “released the explosions of applause among the composer’s countrymen, whose appetite is for the “archaic,” “devotional,” “militaristic”: “the requirements of the German psyche at the moment” (488).

Burke expresses no doubt that music is the trigger of these nationalistic outbursts of applause, not the music as “pure” but the music tainted, in this case, with a national furor, a nationalistic disease or psychosis that the rhetorical art of music can alone synthesize and perform. Such now is the function of music, in ways alike to Cicero’s good orator and good man: not so willingly judged as a technical phenomenon but as a device of the moment to capture the spirit not of the composer’s mind, not of the form’s own capacities, but of the dreams and wishes of the audience.

So, three paths seem to emerge for Burke in the wilderness of the mid-1930s as he fights to articulate his own position on the role of art in politics. We might call them the podium, product, and purpose, suggesting the artist, text, and audience triangle of the communication triangle, but here enacted somewhat more freely and eventfully in the music. Burke is perfectly willing to work, as he did in The Dial columns, on each separately, but the balance has certainly shifted from the first and second to the third. We might imagine a flow chart, initially valorizing the “heroic” posture of the composer and conductor—the enactor of the music, inhabitant of the podium, who can be brilliantly interpreted by Burke as the tonal form emerges in performance—to the eventual uptake in the audience, the purpose of this no longer residing in the form itself as having been brought to the day by “modernizing” genius of its practitioners. Rather, the story reaches its more effectual conclusion in the way audiences think and feel about the “product,” whether that product be the mere folk song of a Foster warped into an obvious cookie cutter commodity by Tin Pan Alley or by the grand scaling of a Hindemith somehow metamorphosing elements of a national character into the ancient and militaristic blaring of horns. High and low, the “voice of God” is the response of the audience, until then mute in the regard or posture of the listener who, perhaps, receives the prayers of the tonal priests. The audience, situated in a web of specific historical conditions affecting all such discourse of the mid-1930s, must answer, Burke argues, as citizens.

Burke fights Hindemith and his “Hitlerite orthodoxy” with Roy Harris’s “A Song for Occupation” in Burke’s next column in December on “A Most Useful Composition.” In contrast to Hindemith’s “ominous trinity—hymn, lullaby, and military march” (719), Burke (via Harris) counters with Walt Whitman: “Musically accentuating the tonalities and rhythms of Whitman’s ecstatically conversational prose, the record of men busied with their tasks” (719). Burke explicitly counters Hindemith’s fascist synthesis of counterpoint with the “rhythms of speech”, “stressing the constructive non-competitive, communicative aspect of work” (719) [Burke’s emphasis].

No questions remain about the communicative power of music, its ability to verbalize, in this case the plain American rhythms of speech, and of speech arising out of work, that homeliest and most common of daily activity.

Burke leaps at the response of the audience to Harris’s Whitman in a passage that is surely a declaration of the purposiveness of this tonal language:

The response of the audience was gratifying. There was none of that deadly amuse-me-or-off-with your-head attitude of the usual concert-going public, who receive their entertainers with the weary passiveness of some fabulously jaded Oriental potentate wile the performing virtuoso in desperation rips at the keyboard like a tornado or turns somersaults on a slack wire fifty feet above the stage. There are doubtless many important steps to be taken before we have completely thrown off this state of musicological corruption wherein people consider music with the casual curiosity of an uninformed idler killing an extra hour among the fossils in a museum of natural history. Our whole philosophy and methodology of living must be remade before this ominous element has been eliminated and something of that cultural hunger which seems to animate the audiences of contemporary Russja can again prevail. But Harris’s new work goes far toward restoring the participant function of audiences as distinct from a merely receptive one. (720)
Equipment for living, indeed: a “musical equivalent of pragmatism, the philosophy of a people who would discover poetry in jobs” (720).

This sense of having settled on a somewhat less complicated view of the functioning of music—satisfying the cultural hunger of peoples or nations—seems to have allowed Burke in his final five columns of The Nation—his final columns in his lifetime on the music scene in America, to disperse his attention across a far more broad array of cultural phenomena that are, in some cases, only tangential to the music “event” that was almost the sole focus of his music writing to that point.

Beginning with the February 1935 number, Burke wrote a book review, a performance of a Shostakovich piece (though unnoted as to where and when, unusual in its unspecified details), an essay on ballet, a review of records, and a final piece that is as much about music criticism as it is about music.  No sure pattern arises from this final procession of columns. The record review, ballet and conference report are unique to The Dial and The Nation pieces, and the book review only once repeated. The obvious conclusion one can make from this dispersion of interest is a lessening of interest as well: the eventfulness of the concert was somehow less important as Burke hit mid-decade, or was better understood in a finer array of encounters with American culture as it struggled against economic conditions and those extra-national events, particularly in Europe, that Burke saw as metonymically present in America as musical compositions and their reception.

One can pull back even further and see that, in the longer narrative arc of the career, these two sustained streaks of music criticism are hardly streaks at all, more like spots of particular color upon that arc, and are traces of a now-diminishing interest in the aesthetic conceits of the 1920s; we have already seen how The Nation columns appear to have audience and economics soldered into them, wedged in with a somewhat graceless crowbar at times. The highly partisan The Nation could not stand quite the acontextual musings of The Dial Burke. The latter pieces have forced Burke to come down to a more collective consciousness of the cheap seats and without the privileged, narrow interests of only classical music or even its modern counterpart. Instead, that privilege now must extend to the masses. Burke, as unhappy as he is with popular music for those same masses, must still acknowledge it and its rhetorical power.

And it is not only the music itself, or its wise docents, that will shape audience response. A full volume of cultural observation by Constance Lambert called Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline is just the sort of perspective that Burke sympathizes with; thus Burke sets forth not only to agree but to disagree as well. Lambert takes a perspective similar to Burke’s Dial: “The one great drawback of Lambert’s study, from my point of view, is that it shows too little sympathy for the aesthetic behind the new collectivist trends in art” (“A Pleasant View of Decay”). He finds Lambert too simplistic in her objections to the collective spirit: “The artist who is one of a group . . . writes for that group alone, whereas the artist who expresses personal experience may in the end reach universal experience” (201).  Lambert’s prime example is Jean Sibelius, whom Burke characterizes as “the lonely Finn”, an amusing turn on the separation of the artist from his society that, in the past, has seemed to be a little more expressive of genius than only “lonely.”

The review underscores an earlier point: the triangle of composer, text, and audience has been reapportioned by this collectivist spirit in Burke’s Nation columns; what is collective, or cumulative perhaps, is not only the audience’s judgment and its powers to affect great movements among popular culture, but also the composers themselves who, like Roy Harris, find ways to make explicit connections to American culture, to poets like Walt Whitman who, in perpetuity, stand for the common voice and collective spirit of America and the American experience.

Burke ends the review with a provocative formula for the rhetorical functioning of music in the mid-thirties, after rejecting Lambert’s tilt toward the artist. Burke writes, “It is a problem in the coordination of production and consumption” (201), a systemic challenge, in other words, in a time and place that requires a collectivist spirit to dominate and, eventually, to overcome historical conditions that threaten this spirit.

Burke’s next column, “What Shostakovich Adds”, extends this debate of the aesthetic contra the political into a particular case, the composer’s opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mzensk.” Characteristic of much of Burke’s career, in this column he looks for the compounding of alternative solutions rather than a singular response to a problem that excludes one or the other. The audience at this performance is again “engrossed” at the composer’s “confidence” and the orchestra’s “authoritativeness” (230). The opera is “topical” yet still artful:

we heard here and there the customary complaints about the intrusion of propaganda into art, and the unfeasibility of same, it might be relevant to remember that the French master [Flaubert] of “pure art” wrote books practically all of which were redoubted at the time of their appearance for their sharp political implications. (230)

“Redoubted” is an interesting word for interpreted—the audience again becomes the judge of whether we do, in fact, have a mingling of art and politics. Of course, we do, Burke says, and he expresses a personal slight:

as one who is still disgruntled at the memory of how unfairly the radical critics in America treated the “aesthetic” movement when the first zest of  political criticism was on, I was pleased to see a contemporary Soviet composer following the patterns of anti-bourgeois thought quite as Flaubert had laid them down. (231)

Whether Katerina, the opera’s central figure who plunges to her death in the icy waters of Siberia, is a truly tragic figure or is the object of the composer’s irony, this is the open question that stimulates Burke’s thinking about the rhetorical device of the orchestra within the performance. As modern Greek chorus whose ‘voices” can signal a kind of Wagnerian leit-motif of coloring or hinted-at interpretation, this interior device of judgment suggests that the orchestra itself can make the rhetorical force of the politics suggested in the opera somewhat clearer. An internal audience is created—rather like the Greek chorus—so that there is a narrowing of interpretive possibilities. The work becomes more focused, more functional as political commentary upon the explicit features of the story—in this particular case, the bourgeois life of the central character and her pitiful (perhaps tragic) end.

The column is the last of Burke’s on a single composer, as if the hero still recedes amongst the collectivist identity of the 1930s. Burke underscores this greater embrace of the “author” in the column’s closing sentence, in which he argues that this device of the interpretive orchestra is “a kind of ‘rational’ trend which need not, like a trick, be confined to one man but could be developed by operatic composers of many different hues” (231).

Burke will not ascribe the invention of this device to either the Greeks or Wagner or Shostakovich; rather it remains a kind of mutable device available to all: its core the collective voice of a classical aesthetic convention of the drama, returning now at a moment when American culture was itself struggling to find or invent such a collective voice that it could call, in the face of international and national challenges of economic and political revolution, American.

In his next and penultimate columns for The Nation in, March and December 1935, respectively, Burke retreats comfortably again into the role of the average audience member who is innocently looking for some kind of comfort, some vicarious thrill in the face of changing economic conditions, or even more simply the phenomenon of the aging physical body. In his column on “The Problems of Ballet”, he begins by asserting that the dance is “vicarious atonement” for our being lethargic; besides the comic overtones, the address to the common complaint of “too many months of winter” suggests a search not for the meaning of life, for instance, but the meaning of aches and pains: thus the “spectacular kind of art” like the Roman circus (343). Here the satiric creeps back into Burke’s language again, a little bit of a sneer, directed of course at himself as well as others, over the reasons for our going to events in the first place: cultural “atonement” having been the pre-judgment of a culture that languishes in the spectator arts of the dance, sport, and physical display for vicarious enjoyment.

His penultimate column, “Recent Records,” is initially a meditation on the erasure of difference among audience types’ access to art, a variation on the preceding argument: one may now become a part of a larger group, the purchaser of art, through the wonders of reproductions of art, and thus elide the economic privileges of attending concerts at prices beyond mere mortals.  Indeed, Burke invokes the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt and the ultimate purchase:

Historians of ancient Egypt tell us that at first the privileges of immortality were restricted to the Pharaohs; later, an ever-widening circle of priests and royal followers acquired the same benefits; and eventually, as the ‘democratization of Osirianism’ progressed, it became possible for even very humble men to purchase a few magic scrips by which they might safeguard their destiny after death. (692)

Burke amusingly conjoins this with the buying of records; what are immortal are the great orchestras now, captured on discs, their “expert performers” at one’s service at the drop of a needle, or the drop of one’s money. Access is extended, and the commodity of the record is quickly dispensed with in favor of brief discussions of the recordings, as if they were, upon being played, as magically re-vivified as the spirits of those ancient Egyptian Pharaohs.

We read only that the Sibelius Second Symphony by Kouusevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra is contained on eleven discs. Other than that daunting detail, we have brief review of Ormandy’s Beethoven, Mahler, and Honegger discs. Sharing the printed page of this December 1935 column is an advertisement by victor for a recent batch of recordings, notable for RCA Victor’s own rhetoric of “Burke’s Pharaoh”:

music is essentially a part of everyone’s life. It gives you the pleasure of passing on to a friend some particular musical preference of your own. . . and gives the recipient the opportunity of sharing a type of entertainment that is especially dear to his heart. Above all, it permits hearing at will the best music performed by solo artists and orchestra of great reputation. (693)

The unproblematic dissemination of art to the masses, when reduced to what has been given the imprimatur of industry—RCA Victor, for example—is of no consequence to Burke except when he is in his mode of capturing all humanity in its need for “atonement.” He believes that “we may at times profit by a partial democratization of spiritual goods” (692), partial perhaps in their distribution and consumption, if not their production.

The production of great art Burke reserves for his final column for The Nation, “A Bright Evening, with Musicians.” Published on the first day of 1936, the column manages to synthesize much of what Burke was interested in as he surveyed the music scene in late 1935, and recounted in such a way that a slim narrative emerges.  The occasion is a combined concert and symposium sponsored by the New Music Society. Aaron Copland speaks first, and Burke is sympathetic to Copland’s melancholic recounting of the dilemma facing composers who are looking for a niche in the contemporary scene; Burke quotes Copland as saying that the composer need write something “that is somehow an expression of the times”––or face anonymity. Burke ascribes to Copland the laying out of a continuum that is familiar to Burke’s readers, since Burke himself has proposed it in so many words: the more contemporarily popular the work, the more it will trend toward being perceived, or heard, as entertainment; and, the more technically recondite it is, the more it will be appreciated only by that small band of trained listeners, the musicians themselves, and the rare critic.

Burke calls this “the problem of the expert,” for which Burke doubts “there will ever be a final answer . . . . It is an irreconcilable dualism inherent in our complex social structure” (27). The “dualism” is a kind of collapsed continuum of reception, in which communication is more or less a function of the non-specialist. In other words, the artist, whose medium is some sort of language, faces rejection as he works more and more on the nature of the medium itself, since he will be pushing that medium, or use of that medium, away from the received procedures.

But Burke lets fly with a very brief comment that would seem to undercut his own refusal to answer or solve this dilemma, and at the same time he pushes the debate into a rhetorical solution of sorts: Copland “did not discuss the ways in which a work is or is not contemporary” (27). While elaborating briefly on this remark having to do with how continuous we consider the threads of history to be, the remark may indicate the situational response that Burke has been working from all along: the music in itself has no effect, but its performance here or there does. Not only could a composer like Toscanini make a nineteenth century composer more “contemporary’ in the performance of his symphony at the Polo Grounds, the demographics of the audience would affect its ontology as well.  In short, the contemporariness of a work is no longer inherent in the work itself—but in the reception of it, as Burke has demonstrated in both The Dial and the Nation columns on the eventfulness of the musical event.

The review of the evening continues, with the significant example of Charles Ives, who at the time had very little standing in the critical community and certainly not in popular music circles; Burke illustrates the “specialist problem” with Ives, whom he says hardly thought of the performability of his work, Ives being “so far from the tests of production”(27). Burke pairs the overly-expert Ives with the critical perspective of a speaker named Eisler, who falls heavily on the propaganda side, or music made entertaining for the sake of an explicit message, preferably political. Burke disposes with the either/or “simplification” of the man with an amusing response: “Some would call ‘let us be on the side of the angels’ poetry and ‘let us be on the side of the party’ prose; in so far as you agree, you will tend to resist Eisler” (27).

Burke ends his career at The Nation’s music desk with a characteristically comic, though earnest, evaluation of just what it means to confound and compound the problems implicit in any criticism of art in his time: “Perhaps, all told, nothing was permanently ‘solved.’ But for one evening, at least, much of the composer’s plight was solved. Astute people who stayed away weren’t so astute either. I have been to no other concert of new music that elicited so much zeal from the audience” (27). He manages to fold composer, music, audience, and occasion into one natural formfullness, optimistic in its outcomes, selective in its uptake, dramatic in its choices and emotions, and representing as always a peak experience for the author, who, in 1935, was working on texts that had everything to do with his own future as a great voice of the twentieth century—as these small columns of brilliance did not.

Chapter Five: Final Notes

The rest, of course, is not quite silence. To use the renewable voice of the novel, comes now the torrent. With Permanence and Change, Attitudes toward History, and The Philosophy of Form all appearing within five years of his last Nation column, and with Auscultation, Creation, and Revision written just prior to and during the Nation columns, Burke releases a torrent of words upon his audiences, and the ephemera of his music writing seemed to disappear like sound into a passing cloud.

There are the occasional uses of music as metaphor, or musicality as a feature of poetry, the occasional reference to opera, and discussions of music and musicians that occur in the letters to friends and acquaintances—yet there is no sustained attention to music in the remaining half-century of Burke’s life with the  exception of the short story “The Anesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell” from 1957 and a later essay to be discussed in this chapter; the short story has been placed early in this book’s consideration of Burke on music because it does not cap or summarize—more, it recalls the earlier work, the inventive power of music to revive the “mintage” Burke describes as the coin of the creative and the critical (Auscultation, in Chesebro 144).

So we are left with crumbs that seem to have been tossed carelessly into the masterpieces for mainly illustrative purposes. Music, in short, ceases to be; it does, however continue to function, but as a rhetorical tool in order to underpin arguments about the verbal world. What has been given up is music’s absoluteness, its sovereignty, and its aesthetic of presence against the silence of non-regard and against the noise of the modern world; it has, by virtue of its expedience, become a part of that noise, the undifferentiated voice of the worker, for example. What may stand out occasionally is the remarkable achievement of a nineteenth-century composer, Wagner, whose opera has a richness of narrative content that permits it to become a part of an array of discussed texts as if it were now, finally, only on a par with the novel.

Of course, the perspective was never this: a great shift from some angle of the music critic to one of society, literature, language, and rhetoric. The work on music was always sedentary, backgrounded, minor. No one reading Burke at the time could have felt, in other words, that something significant had happened to Burke’s critical gaze: a slight, turn, perhaps, but certainly not a swerve or disruption, a mysterious elision. Better to put one in that reading position and think, “Hmm, Burke’s music column used to run here.” Shrug. The sharp cone of brilliant light cast upon the concert would be replaced by the great floodlamps trained upon society at large. Enough of the limited frame of the concert, or even the recording: give him the human concert, the conversation.

So what was never really dominant becomes further recessive, and it is not the point of this little book to try to illuminate what would follow the work on music. There are the interesting tonal/verbal dichotomy discussions, of course, and the metaphorical uses—certainly to be read as “illuminations”—but the subject of this book remains his work on music as work on music and not on symbolicity or rhetoric. Rather than attaching the remaining musical references, as scattered as they are, to some masterpiece of the time, in which they are embedded, I will go through the most stimulating as forming a kind of conceptual coda over the decades to the concentrated work of The Dial and The Nation columns.

Dignity. I choose the term carefully, cognizant that it may hardly serve—as symbol or piety or aesthetic or rhetoric also do not—as a watch term, a crowning ultimate term for Burke’s achievement.  For its consubstantiality with music, however, I will make the case, a perspective of congruity with those greater perspectives that Burke turned to when he, in his final column, saluted composer, audience, and sound in one small but grandly synthetic gesture.

The chord/arpeggio binary presented in The Philosophy of Literary Form is a perfect example of the way earlier thought informed Burke, how he would reach for an earlier perspective in order to illuminate a new one: “. . . if A is in the same chordal structure with B and C, its kindred membership must be revealed by narrative arpeggios. That is, its function as an associate will be revealed by associational progressions in the work itself” (58-59). The chord in music is, of course, two or more tones sounded simultaneously in order to create a fullness, an at-onceness of sound that can in itself be harmonically conventional or not, can serve as a creative explosion in the middle of one-note lines, or simply to underscore a moment with the beauty or terror of many sounds at once.  In PLF, Burke uses the chord as a kind of backhanded entry into narrative and the consecutiveness of the reading experience—or, if at that time he was still as much text-driven as audience-aware, the way authors can construct a “chordal” effect over time, i.e. with the arpeggio structure. The arpeggio is the drawn out chord, or the unstacked chord, so that each part of the chord is sounded separately. Visually, Burke might have referred to the way the eye casts itself over an image: the image does not move, the eye does, and in so doing picks out an infinite number of “tones” in constructing out of this arpeggiation, a sense of the image’s chordal power.

But does the use of this metaphor of the chord say anything at all about Burke’s rhetoric of music?  Probably not. In fact, music now seems in servile usage to literature, the easy effectiveness of the metaphor. It does, however, suggest that, in his choice of figures, Burke returns to the well of earlier inspiration: not architecture, not painting or sculpture, or nature, but music.

Perhaps more interesting in PLF is his brief discussion of musicality and verse, presented as a rough transcript of a portion of a course on Coleridge he gave at the University of Chicago in 1938.  Burke’s conclusion is as interesting as his discussion beforehand: he makes no attempt to draw any connection whatsoever between sound and meaning, “I have here been offering coordinates for the analysis of musicality pure and simple, without concern for the possible expressionistic relation between certain types of tonal gesturing and certain types of attitude” (378).  “Tonal gesturing” is his term for peppering a poem with many gutturals, for examples, or a regular display of plosives; and he is careful not to draw some simple association between those sounds and any determined meaning or attitude toward them. If one refers to music alone, one can say, for example, that the trilling of a flute is recognizable in its repetitions, but not exactly what it must mean: speculative stabs can be made at that trill, or the hammer strokes of tympani, but Burke is not to be trapped by tonal similarities in written language, or “musicality,” with the relatively closed game of meaning in the close reading of texts.  Nevertheless, there is something in literature that is “musical,” a purity of sound that would seem to simply move the language along with an added expressiveness, an implied emotional content that floats above or under a delimited meaning.

This undefined relation between music and literature, or language, can be seen as an ongoing question that arose in Burke’s youthful idealism. In his letters to Malcolm Cowley, Burke displays the kind of positive ambivalence that would be a hallmark of his mature writing: a celebration of both/and over either/or, a working out of the compound, sometimes contradictory solution over the too-narrow simplicities of a single answer. While still a teenager, Burke tells Cowley:

Think of it, Mal, to have two mediums! Perhaps I shall be able to set free verse to music? Hein? That would be fine. And the music is so much more satisfactory than literature anyway. It is an exquisite enjoyment just to play chords, just to tantalize oneself with dissonances, and then resolve them. Music awakens more reactions in us, and reactions which are of a more organic nature . . . (24)

Music wins this one, although in spirit only perhaps, as having some superior seat in the welling of emotions. “Reactions” are an interesting point in this letter, suggesting that reading, even at this age, has become a more analytical or intellectualized activity for Burke than might be expected; music, on the other hand, is “organic,” seated deeply in some pre-linguistic zone.

Cowley, for his part, denies that Burke should choose allegiance to music, thinks that the music people he knows “are not interesting” and that Burke should find a way to do both: “A little broadness as well as a little concentration” (26). Burke seems to have followed this formula very well. Almost 30 years later in 1944 Burke is still displaying the both/and of literature and music to Cowley—at this point, though, the music going private, while literature, here Dostoevsky and the modern crime novel as focus, is more typical of what the published Burke will look like:

I have gone on now, for a couple of years, partly by theory, partly by trial and error, contriving some new sounds, with progressions from one to another, and so on to the next, etc. They are a kind of reversion to the days of my short stories, except that they aim at that sort of thing this time sans paroles. I gravitate between two styles, which I have labeled “faiblesses” and “sournoiseries.” The sournoiseries threaten to become odd and sullen; the faiblesses threaten to become so sweet that I sometimes don’t even write them down. But there’re some faiblesses sournoises and vice versa—and these I have eternized. So usually for several hours a week, I pound away at these, thus indirectly repeating, “I am I,” until I wonder who am I . . .  (262)

As in the letter from his teen years, the music is somehow deeper, more private, recessed in a psychology that has as its top layer language and literature and those relations. Burke suggests that his loyalty to the piano is echoing the years in the twenties when he wrote short fiction: a young man continues to manifest itself in Burke’s creative output, but he is hidden by the relative sophistication of the literary critic. Even in the musical output there are the attacks on categorization at the same moment they are thrown up in structures of the fable and the sournoise: they dance apart and together, and serve best of all to show that their composer still believes that in the creative act there is something to be “eternized.”

Cowley, significantly, says nothing in his response about his friend’s composing, only the need to write on the crime novel. Thirty years has passed, and Cowley must see the red herring for what it is: Burke’s lament for what is only one life to live and its inevitable identification with literature, which will be the subject of individual essays to the end.  Music, on the other hand, disappears; even a substantial essay like “the Thinking of the Body” from 1963, promises a sub-section on Wagner’s Ring, but after its label as an “opera” it is treated as a text, with terms like problem, battle, dramas, plays, and letters and not a single musicological term. In the posthumous collection On Human Nature, Wagner is again involved in a conference paper from 1982. Here, Wagner serves as an example of anticipatory analogy, a sign of “the nature of our times variously anticipated in earlier times”:

The tremendous amount of organization in a Wagnerian opera, for instance, when at fortissimo moments it blares and blasts and pounds as on a battlefield in obedience to the commands of an authoritarian “leader,” is enough to give me the feel at times that the Hitlerite Blitzkrieg was but the transference of the same powers from one set of terms to the another (a feeling which Hitler himself seems to have shared). (110)

One remembers the music columns that paint Toscanini and Koussevitsky in a heroic light. Now, the “leader” is cast more darkly, as an “authority” that resembles the leader of armies and nations. A collapse of boundaries—not only temporal but also aesthetic and rhetorical—and what is left is “blares and blasts,” as unmusical as musical terms can be.

One is left rather like the reporters in Citizen Kane who, when presented with a mountain of evidence of the title character’s larger-than-life vitality, search for the essential key to Kane’s life in a single phrase, “Rosebud,” that must offer itself to them as a victim of the man’s multiplicities and at the same time suggest a salvation for anyone who must look for one answer among many. This reader of the Burke oeuvre has suffered a similar intuitive search, since it is simultaneously fine and terrible to essentialize 60 years of work, fine for its romanticism, its search for the grain of sand, and terrible for it says about the organizational needs of the human mind.

But there it is: a final piece upon which to conclude this discussion of Kenneth Burke’s rhetoric of music.  It appears in 1977 in Critical Inquiry as part of a series that the journal was publishing called “Artists on Art.” The series title is interesting in itself, suggesting that Burke, and Critical Inquiry, was willing to grant the discussion as emanating from not a critic or a philosopher or an analyst, but an artist, in this case in the throes of creating art. “Post-Poesque Derivation of a Terministic Cluster” does not answer any of the current issue-related squabbles of the time, as were many of his essays directed at individuals like Fredric Jameson, or B. F. Skinner or René Wellek. Instead, Burke invokes Edgar Allan Poe assertion that Poe’s poem “The Raven,” as Burke quotes Poe, “proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequences of a mathematical problem.”

Burke has no more use for Poe except to touch and then separate himself from him: “My aim is not to show how certain interrelated commonplaces were deduced. Rather, I would offer a rationale whereby they would be deducible” (215). In other words, Burke wishes to aim higher than a mere poem for what he intends to argue: the relation of body to language, or speechlessness to speech. His object is not a mere self-analysis in the mode of Poe, although Burke will begin the piece with a text of his own. His tool, or his “terministic bridge” for this argument, is music.

As with the late texts that seem to invoke music, like the one that discusses Wagner above, there is not any real musicological analysis, no discussion of “pitch” or “melody” or “harmony” or “technique” as fill The Dial columns, no particular attention to emotive content or performance.  Instead, the emphasis is on the words, or lyrics, of the musical text.  But it is in the processional gaps between “my quite orthodox tune” and “the hand-to-mouth job of writing words” for his “Chorale Omega” that Burke struggles, in spectacular and complex fashion, to find what it is that music might finally be, what its rhetoric is in that gap between what Burke calls “this life as sheerly physiological organisms” (216) and “our public acts as citizens” (219).

Burke sees our lives as finding ways to close the gap between these two realities; he believes, however that this dissonant pair is “our role as divided natures (half-dumb bodies, half-involved with symbol systems such as tribal languages) moves us far from the state of inarticulate physiological motion” (216).  In shorter notation, Burke is working out the body/language divide, the motion/action divide, the speechlessness speech divide, the sound/sense divide.  He is working it out in such a way as to suggest, as he would remark, as a true believer of the trinity, or better in communicative terms, a dialectic that yields a new product, a third form that has transcended both ingredients or progenitors.

The transcendental instrument is discussed briefly in an essay form the 1960s, “I EYE AY” in which Emerson provides Burke with a solution to the insolvency of distinct realms that must understand each other. Burke’s answer is a “terministic bridge” that somehow does not erase but comprises the two.  In the current essay, there is no explicit mention of this terministic bridge, for reasons discussed below, but what I call the “processional gaps” above is in fact this third entity, described in experiential terms for Burke as, “the whole a tangle that culminated in this clear emergence” (217).

The divide between body and language, or physiology and speech, confounds with its apples-and-oranges feel. One might more readily say that the two are often present together, but are distinct in their function. But Burke is after two kinds of “sound” that arise from these two things: expressions of supplication and the communication of ideas. Now the bridge is clearer, and the entities divided are not so much different as consecutive phenomena of the human life-span. After discussing the actual cries and prayers of the human, Burke describes this development of meaning: “a hymn is for a less extreme form of address—and whereas ‘cry’ is on the purely physiological side of our beginnings, ‘call’ is the counterpoint where considerations of verbal address are in order, as is a verse-form of the sort we are here concerned with” (216). We learn to call, with intention, when our infancy shows us the unintentional effects of the cry, which are the same. One is made with consciousness, the other not.

Both, however, are heard.  In a follow up essay a year later, also in Critical Inquiry, Burke invokes Jung and Freud in order to illustrate the difficulties of handling the motion/action phenomenon in a consistent way:

There is a kind of “synchronic” relationship between the realm of symbolic action and its grounding in the sensations made possible by the physiology of nonsymbolic motion. Such would seem to be at the roots of Jung’s concern (almost nostalgic concern?) with the “polar” problem inherent in his ideal of an overall nomenclature to be formed in the name of Unus Mundus.

Freud’s concern with the temporally prior would be on the “diachronic” side, having to do with the fact that the human animal develops from speechlessness (nonsymbolic infancy) through successive stages in the ways of symbolicity . . . . In any case, both of such concerns (Jung’s and Freud’s) require us to track down the ultimate implications of what it is to be the kind of animal who relations between its Self (as an individual) and its Culture (its society) is infused (“inspirited”) with the genius (for better or worse) of its symbols systems, which it learns to manipulate and by which it gets correspondingly manipulated. (“(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action” 164-165).

In this later piece Burke is less interested in a transcendence of these warring paradigms of growth, seeing now that any closing of the gap is an aesthetic manipulation of difference so that, with examples of Keats and Yeats, “the realm of symbolic action take[s] over, in terms of images that stand for things (materials) themselves symbolic” 165).

And so the tantalizing offer of transcendence seems withdrawn, but the offer remains: “all is symbol” if the thing is or the self is nothing until named, which is the moment of symbolizing. Or, as Burke writes in the later essay, “Even if we don’t know a thing’s name, it exists for us only as we think of it as potentially nameable” (165).

Where does this leave us with the “Chorale Omega”? Burke has extended his own experience with the musical form to illustrate this deducible, and irreducible, fact about human relations: we begin in speechlessness, find voice, and thus learn to petition audiences, who will hear our prayers, broadly or narrowly understood. In an echo of his Dial assertion that the audience is “the voice of God” the “petitioned” is powerful, the petitioner weak. Burke again outlines the human story in terms of symbol systems: “the more absolute the power, the greater the impulse to make fear of a helpful power and praise of that power into convertible terms” (217).

“Convertible terms,” “public acts,” “purely physiological motion”: caught in this web of pre-conditions, of ineluctable forward movement, of synchronic or diachronic action, we are to see the composer of the “Chorale Omega,” and, for example, Richard Wagner, Mozart, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ellington, Cole Porter, and Lennon/McCartney with their “tribal language”, a system of symbols (nevertheless dialectal in their relation to one another) creating some sort of rhetorical force in the world.

Yet the discussion seems to turn textual, or linguistic again; the musical content has dropped away as Burke works through his own composing process, and deals more generally with the relation of poet to poem, about the effects and causes of disease among the creative soul, and how these may or may not manifest in the work. The last half of the essay has nothing to say about music or its features, and we are left again with the intimation that when Burke speaks of “fiction” or any “dramatic ‘imitation’” he would seem to be embedding music in this creative universe, especially since he has begun this discussion of the creative act with his own musical composition. (Another published musical composition, the song “One Light in a Dark Valley,” is subtitled an “Imitation Spiritual,” and published in Collected Poems with musical notation; Burke calls it “feeble-minded,” and in the same letter refers to “Post-Poesque Derivation of a Terministic Cluster” as “a theory of ‘commonplaces’ in my words, to match the commonplaces of the music” (Burke, Letters 408); his grandson, the singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, will record the song for Dance Band on the Titanic).

The self-deprecating tone of Burke’s remarks about his own forays into music and musical composition aside, the elision of music as a stand-alone symbol system continues.  While the sense of music as “tribal” or “dialectal,” the latter as he refers to music in an early Dial column, has survived some 50 years in Burke’s career. The easy brilliance of Burke’s “Inventory” has not, in which music seems to stand as a magnificent “song above catastrophe,” or at least above a darkening mood, and which is identified with the sounds of the city, a crafted noise that the country can only counter with Nature.  That easy opposition of Art against Nature is no longer present in this late essay; instead, Burke falls into a double-sided consideration of the simultaneous and consecutive existence in symbols. The either/or, which Burke would counter endlessly with both/and, the trinary coup that might transcend choice and confirm an embrace of both in their individual and cultural manifestations, is called a “possibility” in this essay but, when paired with “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/ (Symbolic) Action” seems not terribly persuasive or, at best, a trick of the eye and mind contemplating a universe in which every perceived thing has, by virtue of its thingness, a meaning.

The dualism abides. And as Burke reads his own art, the verbal world emerges from a physiological one, symbols out of needs. Sound, finally, is a current upon which words eventually “cry,” “call,” and depart from, a medium in itself no longer complete for analysis––of fear and terror, yes, but of a kind that Burke quotes Aristotle as calling “tragic pleasure” (219), to distinguish from the real. Or, as Burke once more dances backward from any privileging of the non-aesthetic, the “real.”

Coda: Without a Song

Four days after the towers fell, Sonny Rollins performs in concert at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.  When the applause gives way to Rollins’s announcement of the first tune, the audience hears that the band will “start out” with something that Rollins knew “when I was growing up.” Rollins adds that “it’s very appropriate at this time” and that “everybody feels this way” (Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert).

In this manner Rollins captures the life of song at a moment without song.

To many of those in the hall, the words are indeed heard, silently sounded under the jazz of Rollins and his band: “Without a song the day would never end / Without a song the road would never bend / When things go wrong a man ain’t got a friend / Without a song . . . .”

* Jeffrey Carroll is a Professor of English in the Department of English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, Hawaii.  He can be reached via email at jcarroll@hawaii.edu.

Works Cited


Burke, Kenneth. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 83 (December 1927): 535-539.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 84 (January 1928): 84-88.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 84 (February 1928): 174-178.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 84 (March 1928): 265-267.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 84 (April 1928): 356-358.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 84 (May 1928): 445-447.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 84 (June 1928): 536-538.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 85 (July 1928): 85-88.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 85 (December 1928): 529-532.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 86 (January 1929): 87-89.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 86 (February 1929): 177-178.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 86 (March 1929): 242-243.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 86 (April 1929): 356-358.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 86 (May 1929): 447-448.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 86 (June 1929): 538-539.

----. "Schönberg." The Nation 137 (November 1933): 633-643.

----. "Orpheus in New York." The Nation 138 (January 1934): 52-54.

----. "Two Brands of Piety." The Nation 138 (February 1934): 256-258. 

----. "The End and Origin of a Movement." The Nation 138 (April 1934): 422-424.

----. "The Most Faustian Art." The Nation 139 (August 1934): 138-140.

----. "Hindemith Does His Part." The Nation 139 (October 1934): 487-488.

----. "A Most Useful Composition." The Nation 139 (December 1934): 719-720.

----. "What Shostakovich Adds." The Nation 140 (February 1935): 230-231. 

----. "The 'Problems' of the Ballet." The Nation 140 (March 1935): 343-344.

----. "Recent Records." The Nation 141 (December 1935): 692-693.

----. "A Bright Evening, with Musicians." The Nation 142 (January 1936): 27.


Burke, Kenneth. “Curriculum Criticum.” Counter-Statement. Rev. ed.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

----. “Post-Poesque Derivation of a Terministic Cluster.” Critical Inquiry 4 (Winter 1977): 215-220.

----. “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action.” Critical Inquiry 4 (Summer 1978): 809-838. In Burke, On Human Nature, 139-171.

----. “Realisms, Occidental Style.” In Burke, On Human Nature, 96-118.


Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. 3rd ed. Rev. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

----. Towards a Better Life: Being a Series of Epistles, or Declamations. New York: Harcourt, Brace and

Company, 1932; 2nd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

----. The Complete White Oxen: Collected Short Fiction of Kenneth Burke. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

----. The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley. Ed. Paul Jay. Berkeley: University of Califorjia Press, 1990.

----. On Human Nature: A Gathering While Everything Flows, 1967-1984. Berkeley: University of Califorinia Press, 2003.

Chesebro, James, ed. Extensions of the Burkeian System. Tuscaloosa: University of  Alabama Press, 1993.

Nietzsche, Friederich. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967.

Selzer, Jack. Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversations with the Moderns. Madison: University of

Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Wess, Robert. Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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


Ro Rollins, Sonny. Without A Song: The 9/11 Concert. Milestone 2005.

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The Song above Catastrophe: Kenneth Burke on Music by Jeffrey Carroll is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

BOOK REVIEW: Poetic Healing: A Vietnam Veteran’s Journey from a Communication Perspective

Hugeln, M., & Clark, B. B. (2005).  Poetic Healing:  A Vietnam Veteran’s Journey from a Communication Perspective.  Parlor Press: West Lafayette, IN. 

Bryan Moe and David Tarvin, Louisiana State University

A GRENADE EXPLODES FEET FROM  Private Basil Clark while trucking through the jungles during a tour of combat in Vietnam. The blast sends shrapnel, force, and sound through his body, doing irreparable violence.  For Clark, medical professionals were able to repair the visible wounds only leaving behind scars, but it was the invisible wounds that caused the most damage.  The blast presented unique challenges to his healing and recovery process. Even after the diagnoses of tinnitus and subsequent medical treatment there has been little relief to the persistent ringing in his ears. The ringing experienced by Clark is similar to the ringing we may experience after going to a loud rock concert. The difference is that the ringing for us will last only a short time. For Clark the ringing has lasted over fifty years with little chance of ever disappearing.  Coupled with the “ringing” are the emotional and psychological damages caused by the war.

The inability for conventional medicine to heal his wounds led Basil Clark to a new form of treatment: “poetic healing.” By giving form to his traumatic experiences through art, Clark strives to “propel the understanding and helps to explain the free flow of one human’s emotion” (xvii). Poetic Healing: A Vietnam Veteran’s Journey from a Communication Perspective, written in cooperation with Clark’s friend and communication scholar, Mark Huglen, is an exploration of the effort to use art as equipment for living.  Their goal is to provide an example of how one veteran was able to heal, through poetry, in the hopes that “people would relate the insights to their own experiences” (xxi). It is a “chronicle of Professor Clark’s successful self-help methods through a miraculous journey of ‘poetic healing’” (xiii). Primarily through Burke’s redemption cycle, also known as terms of order, Huglen argues that Clark was trying to find a way to pull the memories of war and experiences thereafter together to make some kind of sense for his future.  Huglen claims, “The process of questioning and the acts of communicative battling were themselves teaching the poet something about himself” and “also teaching others. . . .  What was the poet doing? He was teaching, and he was healing” (281) By outlining the process of healing it became clear to both Huglen and Clark that this process was also about teaching others a method of coping with psychological and physical trauma.

Burke’s redemption cycle provides the theme for their method of overcoming and transcending pain.  The first five chapters can be categorized as one of the five categories in the cycle: order (chapter 1); pollution (chapter 2); guilt (chapter 3); purification (chapter 4); and, redemption (chapter 5). While “Basil’s phases are unique to Basil,” Huglen shows how “the poet took us through a sense of order to a period of disorder, and then back to order” (286).  To show this cycle, Huglen gives narratives of evenings spent with Clark in the scenic Appalachian Mountains dominating the Kentucky landscape. These narratives provide metaphors to the redemption cycle and other concepts discussed in each chapter.

The chapters begin with an introduction from Huglen, proceed with Clark’s poetry and prose, and conclude with analysis from Huglen inspired by the work of Kenneth Burke. For instance, chapter 4, titled “Burning the Postwar Terrain,” provides an example of how the authors layout this process. The chapter begins with Huglen’s narrative of a day sitting on Clark’s porch looking out at the “gorgeous” mountain landscape. Pointing out to a particular area upon the mountain range, Huglen says to Clark, “that mountain range looks so picture perfect. It looks like has been cosmetically altered” (185). Without delay Basil grabs Huglen, driving off in the car to investigate this picturesque mountain. Upon arrival they discover the range is a reclamation project.  Huglen states, “The mining reclamation projects are analogous psychologically to the veteran’s tasks” (187). Like the mountain, Clark had been stripped of something – silence.  Like the coal, it will never return. However, upon restoring the area around the mine beauty begins to overcome the effects of the mining.  In Clark’s case, his poetry serves as this restoring device. The poetry in chapter 4 deals with death and shows how Clark is coming to function with his pain. For example, Clark’s poem Some Folks Kill Themselves reads “Some folks kill themselves by hanging. / Some folks use a gun. / Others kill themselves by living. / Waiting ‘till it’s done” (195). Huglen suggests the dichotomy between being killed and living is important in the purification stage. He states, “The veteran places incongruous things side by side, suggesting that some kind of movement is going to take place for resolution” (192). In the end, Basil will rise anew, from the grave to solid footing upon a living soil.

The poet’s ability to transcend the pain of tinnitus through poetry provides useful insights for the Communication discipline.  The book serves as a “focus upon the conflict and consequences for interpersonal relations” (xvi).  The interpersonal struggle Clark went through shows the power of communication because it “both reflects and creates at the physical and symbolic levels and carries our attitudes, actions, and beliefs in the spirit and orientation that we espouse” (xvi).  In the introduction, the authors suggest, “College and university professors may use Poetic Healing as a supplementary text in the following courses: Communication in Human Relationships, Interpersonal Communication, Rhetorical Theory and/or Criticism, Oral Interpretation, and Acting/Theater” (xix). Huglen and Clark’s book works well with these courses because it shows the power communication has to transform pain.

Poetic Healing should be placed in the communication discipline as both a case study of Burke’s redemption cycle, and, more importantly, as a tool for interpersonal conflict management of traumatic suffering.   The book serves a rhetorical function as it acts as a microcosm of sorts; here we are suggesting the power of art. The poetry allows Clark to reorient his life and heal through a poetically constructed understanding of pain as it relates to experiences in Vietnam War and return home to the United States. The poetry helps him transcend the ringing in his ears to a life with purpose: “God is simply giving him some powerful experiences to write about” (126). Understanding the rhetorical functions of art provides a paradigm for reading Poetic Healing. The process of writing these poems and prose was like the stitching of the flesh wounds caused by shrapnel.

Many scholars in Trauma Studies have discussed overcoming and transcending pain caused by traumatic experiences at length. Huglen and Clark add to the current literature by extending the scope of research to documenting the poetic process of an American Veteran over an extended period of time with rich and ample texts. By observing the emotional struggle in Private Clark’s writing and matching it with Burke’s critical eye, the audience is grasped by aesthetic pleasure and enriched with the wealth of knowledge in Communication and Trauma Studies.  Scholars in these fields, coupled with students studying Burke and victims of similar traumas, will find Poetic Healing useful for demonstrating the rhetorical potential of art and its ability to help transcend pain.

*Bryan Moe is a Communication Studies Doctoral Student in Rhetoric at Louisiana State University.  He can be reached via email at bmoe1@lsu.edu.

*David Tarvin is a Communication Studies Doctoral Student in Rhetoric at Louisiana State University.  He can be reached via email at dtarvi1@lsu.edu.

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SCHOLAR'S NOTE: Burke on Propaganda in Art

Mary Hedengren

RATHER THAN STRICTLY DEFENDING OR denouncing propagandistic elements of art, Burke, as always, seemed inclined to break through antithetical opposites with a third option. He believed that art didn’t have to be purely aesthetic, “art for art’s sake” and it didn’t have to be “a class weapon”; art could be “a learning tool” that could “effect change in the attitudes of the masses” (Weiser 13). As usual, Burke refuses to make a definite statement condemning or extolling propagandistic art. Instead, he describes propaganda as an essential component of art itself, contrasts different styles of propaganda and different objects of propaganda. While we may be hesitant to use the term “propaganda” to describe a piece of art, Burke used the term in a non-pejorative sense—propaganda can describe art that recognizes the capacity to be both influenced by and be an influence on audience’s attitudes and beliefs.

But while propagandistic art could be a powerful force for good, it had to be based on a sound moral philosophy and employ a style that treats its audience as people, not pawns. Propagandistic art could be as terrible as Mein Kampf, as Burke describes in “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” or it would be as constructive as the radio plays and novels he reviews in “War and Cultural Life”; much depends on the purpose and style of the piece.  In the end, Burke is less than perspicuous on the topic, but in his ambiguities, he provides rhetoricians with a sophisticated understanding of how art and propaganda are related, as well of the ethical standards to guide writers in forming moral propagandistic art.

What is Art’s Relationship with Propaganda?

When is art propaganda? In a sense, Burke might say, all art contains an element of propaganda. In 1933, aesthete Allen Tate wrote a scathing article condemning artists who abandon the universal in order to pursue political aims and Tate singled out Burke as a prime example (George and Selzer 1930s 96-97). With writers like Burke focusing on the political capacity of literature, Tate wondered what became of art’s universality, its craft, its soul? Tate argued that what was best about art was the way it resisted the moment in which it was created, participating instead in something independent from temporal needs and audiences. Burke wouldn’t take that sitting down. In the ensuing letter-battle with Tate, Burke responded with shock and sarcasm to the argument that literature doesn’t need audience: “What! Does this lad not try to make his verse appealing? Has he not even omitted things which he considered significant, but the significance of which he felt would not be apparent and moving to others?” (qtd. in George and Selzer 1930s 98). Even Tate has to be selective in his writing to address an audience, changing and omitting what might not be readily understood by his audience. Burke argues that since all artists must persuade the audience to interest and engagement, all art has an element of propaganda to it. Tate’s claims that art can be independent of audience and circumstance simply cannot exist in real life: all art must respond to and garner response from an audience.

This response strengthens the art. In 1933, a young Burke suggested in “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” that because propagandistic art engages the world, it keeps art from being so removed from “merely using the values which arise out of a given social texture” as purely aesthetic art might (“Nature of Art” 677).  Ironically, propaganda is the art that focuses on the ability of readers to change and to change the worlds around them, while “art for art’s sake” demonstrates a sleepy world where things exist without any relation to the readers or their world. Burke argues that “art for art’s sake” can lull a reader into a false sense of comfort and security, but propaganda engages the reader into something bigger and better, something that influences society much more widely.

There must be a relationship between the reader, the writer, and the world beyond.Burke developed more fully the relationship between art and the forces of the outside world that he sets up in “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism” in Counter-Statement. Presumably, Tate had been offended by such phrases from the book as “we may look upon literature as an incipient form of action” when he criticized it so soundly (185). Certainly, Burke’s assertion that “the reader has certain categorical expectations” would rub the aesthete the wrong way (139). Art contains propagandistic characteristics (for example, highly considering the readers’ expectations) so it would seem that Burke suggests that art belongs in the arsenal of the propagandist seeking wide-scale social change.

Despite his clear argument that literature can and does have a widely felt influence on society, Burke carefully backs away from any claim that would equate literature with “the pamphlet, the political tract, the soapbox oration,” which “deal with the specific issues of the day” (CS 189). Literature’s role was to subtly influence general attitudes, not to demand a specific action about a single incident.  Good propagandistic literature shouldn’t tell readers how to vote on a union bill, but create sympathy and concern for the strikers as fellow human beings.

By the time he writes Counter-Statement, Burke argues that art exists within the realm of propaganda, changing readers’ attitudes, not their direct actions, about general principles. Burke claims that the purpose of “literature of the imagination [is to] prepare the mind in a more general fashion” to eventually support “reforms in the particular” (189-90). It isn’t art’s job to directly support a current issue, but to change minds in a more subtle way.

There is a fundamental difference between the way art and direct propaganda function. Burke’s correspondent William Carlos Williams might rightly be frustrated when Communists insisted that his poetry must be “[turned] into a force directed toward one end, Vote the Communist Ticket,” (qtd. George and Selzer 1930s 33-34). However, Burke’s assertion that art has propagandistic characteristics in no way implies that art must perform the same work as a political poster.

In the unpublished manuscript Burke was developing about literature and politics, the rather catchy-titled Auscultation, Creation and Revision: the Rout of the Esthetes, or Literature Marxism and Beyond, Burke highlights the difference between poetry and propaganda, using the example of an ensuing storm. Here he suggests that “poetry (pure literature) and propaganda (applied literature) will both deal with it. … The poet will prepare us … by saying, ‘beware, a storm approacheth,’ while the pamphleteer will handle the matter by saying ‘Go thou, and buy rubbers” (qtd. George and Selzer 1930s 79). Literature and propaganda differ in their degree of specificity, but not in their worldview or attention to the reader. Sometimes all it takes for a work of literature to cross over into direct propaganda is to touch on the immediate specific issues of the day. Burke describes how these issues create propagandistic art in Auscultation, Creation and Revision, when he says that a “book becomes ‘propaganda’ simply by reason of the fact that the ideology upon which it relies for its effectiveness is close to a ‘burning issue’” (55). These “burning issues” are firmly rooted in the real life (for example, the need to buy galoshes), while in Counter-Statement, Burke reframes this relationship by saying that the poet both complements and counters the pamphleteer. Through the aesthetic we practice our general beliefs for eventual specific action, or in Burke’s words, “[in] preparing for imaginary ills, we also prepare for real ones” (112). In fact, Burke claims that even “the most fanciful, ‘unreal,’ romance may stimulate by implication the same attitudes toward our environment as a piece of withering satire attempts explicitly” (90). Poetry and propaganda may differ in their method and degree of specificity, but not in their rhetorical essence.

Burke’s concept of propagandistic literature resists both the aesthetes’ pejorative and the Communists’ imperative; art and propaganda are intertwined because of their very nature. George and Selzer astutely gloss Burke’s position on propaganda as “there is no ‘categorical breach’ between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ literature […] nor between ‘poetry’ and ‘propaganda’—each is persuasive and potentially revolutionary” (1930s 78). Although poets like Tate and political thinkers like Cowley may feel poetry and propaganda as striving against each other (as surely do many 21st century readers), Burke suggests that they are essentially similar, if directionally separate, like two sides of the same coin.

How Ought Propagandistic Literature To Work?

When Burke tells both the aesthetes and the Communists that art and propaganda are fundamentally similar, he doesn’t mean that all art progresses a noble project, and he doesn’t think that all propaganda is done artfully. If the poet is to create a piece that is “potentially revolutionary,” he or she must found it on worthy principles and stylistically organize it to create identification, not exclude or demean.

Propagandistic art’s sense of morality is based, in part, on what it’s promoting. “Pure art is safest only when the underlying moral system is sound,” Burke writes as his sixth principle of “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism” (677). For Burke at this stage, the number one requirement for a sound “underlying moral system” is that it undermines capitalist paradigms. He goes on to proclaim that “the moral breach arising out of capitalist vitiation of the work-patterns calls for a propaganda art” (677). The communist cause is the first worthy principle that Burke envisions inspiring great propagandistic art, but he eventually generalizes his requirement beyond just a criticism of capitalism: what makes capitalism so nefarious, in part, is its pervasiveness and its wide-spread, unchallenged acceptance. In addition to any economic concerns Burke has about capitalism, he also hates the unthinking way that his society accepts it.

In “Reading While You Run,” Burke complains, “Propaganda? Capitalist propaganda is so ingrained in our speech that it is as natural as breathing” (PLF 323). In this unexamined state, art must point out new perspectives to our commonly held beliefs. Art should encourage a break from the status quo, an upheaval of traditional thought instead of “devoutly plugging for the standard per se, without examining too closely the one-way profit system” (PLF 325).

Art is especially prone to either aping commonly held perceptions or else shaking them up fundamentally. If “[pure] art tends to promote a state of acceptance,” as Burke’s fifth principle of “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism” argues, then propagandistic art provides an opportunity to challenge that paradigm (677).  Art can merely support unexamined thought, but it’s most worthwhile when it challenges a society’s standards. In Counter-Statement, Burke puts this another way: “art may be of value purely through preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly, itself “(105). It may take effort for artists to step back and analyze whether their art supports or undermines the status quo, but it is well worth the effort.

Sometimes it takes massive, external influence for art to change from its pervasive biases. These environmental changes affect our cultural assumptions and provide space for art to challenge political, religious and aesthetic intolerance (Counter-Statement 89). During World War II, Burke saw the outbreak of war as an impetus to shift “the emphasis from ‘diversity in unity’ to ‘diversity in unity’” and away from capitalist assumptions through the art of leftist, American propagandists such as John Steinbeck  (“War and Cultural Life” 404-5). But even though these huge external influences provide a chance for art to change society, it isn’t enough to have the noble cause—the way propaganda is used matters too.

Burke claims that the style of propaganda greatly determines its morality. The best propaganda, as Elizabeth Weiser points out, will consist of “a proper use of style engaged with the masses rather than manipulating them, or as Burke put it, it used a tone that did not talk down to people or falsely build them up” (84). This style wouldn’t just demoralize enemies—it would also “remoralize” them (“War and Cultural” 404). Burke’s vision of propagandistic art brings people in, instead of shutting them out, and treats them as actual human beings instead of puppets to be manipulated. Its style would not only seek out “the lamentable rather than the picturesque” but also utilize the “strategy of idealization, or humanization” (PLF 224). In short, it would be a style that encouraged identification.

Language and style represent more than just the topic—it reflects also the artist and the society within which the artist resides. In his article “The Calling of the Tune,” Burke explains that “the artist, as spokesman, does not merely represent his subject; nor does he merely represent himself; he also represents his readers […]. He speaks for an audience […] with whom he is identified” (PLF 229). With such an intimate and privileged relationship with the audience, the artist must be especially aware of the existing terms, concepts and beliefs of the audience and speak for them as well as for himself.

In order to create sympathetic identification, art must seek to include, not exclude, its intended audience. Burke managed to upset many of his Communist friends with his criticisms of Marxist art that excluded and depressed the reader without “mov[ing] anyone to action” (Weiser 13). In fact, Burke found much in Communist art that he felt was too prescriptive, too specific, and too unsympathetic. He criticized those writers

who focus all their imaginative range within this orbit [of] … strikes, lockouts, unemployment, unsavory working conditions, organized resistances to the police, etc. [because they] must produce an oversimplified and impoverished art, which would defeat its own purposes, failing even as propaganda since it did not invigorate audiences. (qtd. in George and Selzer 1930s 26)

For Burke, the propagandistic work art could do for Communism had less to do with Williams’ dour “Vote the Communist Ticket” and more to do with finding things in common, seeking inclusion, and creating what he would later describe as identification.

If the Communist message was to be disseminated across the world, it had to be done in a way that would woo adherents, rather than alienate them. Burke expected all propaganda, literary and otherwise, to follow a doctrine of inclusion rather than exclusion. This expectation got in him trouble at the First American Writers’ Congress. As might be considered typical, the Communists were eager to depict the struggle of the Worker in strikes and unions; however, Burke saw this as poor propaganda because average Americans were adverse to the Worker as a phrase that was antithetical to their cultural history and personal identity (George and Selzer “What Happened”).  Burke instead recommended a “propaganda by inclusion” that focused on America’s familiarity with the People as the cultural moniker for egalitarian aspirations, but some of the Communists were so set in their ways that they failed to see this “propaganda by inclusion” as propaganda at all. This attention to propaganda by inclusion eventually developed into his theory of identification (George and Selzer 1930s 26). Careful attention to the style and form of language could persuade an audience to change their minds and attitudes about a political position.

Burke’s theory about which words Communist propaganda should employ, though forward, was not entirely foreign to the purposes of the Congress, as George and Selzer have pointed out (“What Happened”). Still, some members of the Congress took exception to Burke’s views, seeing them as not “Communist enough” because they accommodated bourgeois vocabulary. Vocabulary, though, was near to the heart of Burke’s developing identification theories. A single word could change minds. When life-long friend Malcolm Cowley criticized Burke for his aesthetic approach to Communist issues, Burke responded, “Granted: there are sewers to be cleaned. To get them cleaned by calling them alters is promotion work” (qtd. in Weiser 13).  Careful attention to the existing words and attitudes of the audience creates propagandistic art that is more effective and more ethical.

A Conclusion and Word of Warning

In the first half of the 20th century, aesthetes on the one hand and party activists on the other both tried to lionize either poetry or propaganda, creating a dichotomy of privilege. Burke resisted this binary and instead suggested the poetry and propaganda shared similar creations and similar effects in an audience. He articulated the way that those who sought to impact an audience’s attitudes might do so without being unethical or unwise. In this paper, I’ve focused on Burke’s requirements of the creator; however, not all who create propagandistic art are founding their pieces on “sound” moral principles, nor are all poets aware of their propagandistic biases. While Burke tries to advise his fellow poet-Communists in creating art that is both impactful and moral, he understands that it is absolutely necessary to develop the capacity to resist propaganda, and to be alert to instances where writers are less than moral.

When art contains such propagandistic characteristics, it becomes even more vital that readers are aided by astute critical capacities. M. Elizabeth Weiser pointed out the connection between Burke’s article about art’s power, “Equipment for Living,” and his call to the critic, “Debunking,” when she summarized that, “Art is by its nature functioning already as a semi-propagandistic device; what criticism could do was to make conscious its propagandistic critique” (41). Like Burke’s criticism of pervasive capitalist propaganda, as careful readers we have to learn to recognize that art is intrinsically propagandistic. The reader assumes that art is innocent because it is art; instead, the reader must be aware also of art’s native element of propaganda.

*Mary Hedengren can be reached via email at Mary.hedengren@gmail.com. 

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. Berkeley: U California P, 1968. Print.

---. “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism.” The Nation 137.3571 (1933): 675-77. Print.

---. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U California P, 1973. Print.

---. "War and Cultural Life." The American Journal of Sociology 48 (1942): 404-410. JSTOR. Brigham Young University, Provo. Web. 8 Apr. 2010.

George, Ann and Jack Selzer. Kenneth Burke in the 1930s. Columbia SC: U South Carolina P, 2007. Print.

---. “What Happened at the First American Writers’ Congress? Kenneth Burke’s ‘Revolutionary Symbolism of America.’” Rhetorical Society Quarterly 33.2 (2003): 47-66. JSTOR. Brigham Young University, Provo. Web.  24 Mar. 2010.

Weiser, M. Elizabeth. Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Dramatism. Columbia: U South Carolina P, 2008. Print.

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"Burke on Propaganda in Art" by Mary Hedengren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.