Representative Anecdotes in General, with Notes toward a Representative Anecdote for Burkean Ecocriticism in Particular


Robert Wess, Oregon State University

Abstract: Why say "representative anecdote" rather than simply "representative"? The addition of "anecdote" follows from Burke’s theorizing of language as "a part of" rather than "apart from" reality. This theoretical model allows Burke to combine realism with linguistic skepticism. This model also suggests how ecocriticism may combine antifoundationalism with a foundational ecological realism. Tentative exploration of the possibilities of a representative anecdote for Burkean ecocriticism considers Burke’s discussions of technology, apocalypse ("Towards Helhaven"), "our biologic genius" (Permanence and Change), and "Counter-Nature," with anecdotal material drawn from Karen Tei Yamashita’s prize-winning, experimental novel, Through the Arc of Rain Forest.


There is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention

--Kenneth Burke, 1937

IN "REVEALING NATURE: TOWARD AN ECOLOGICAL CRITICISM," first published in 1990, Glen A. Love points tellingly to a seeming anomaly in literary studies:

Race, class, and gender are the words which we see and hear everywhere at our professional meetings and in our current publications. But curiously enough . . . the English profession has failed to respond in any significant way to the issue of the environment, the acknowledgment of our place within the natural world and our need to live heedfully within it, at peril of our very survival. (226)

This trio of race, gender and class has even been dubbed the "holy trinity of literary criticism" (Appiah and Gates 625). One effect of this development in literary studies of particular interest to Burke scholars is a blossoming of interest in Burke’s discussions with Ralph Ellison about the representation of race in American culture.1

A common argument against this "holy trinity" is that it politicizes literary studies, deflecting attention away from aesthetic and poetic issues. However common, this argument is an oversimplification. Consider that if politics is the sole motivation involved, then it is difficult to see why literary studies got a trio instead of a quartet that included the environment along with race, gender, and class. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, after all, appeared in 1962, one year before Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, and eight years after the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The first Earth Day was 1970. In other words, the politics of the environment and the politics of race, gender, and class became prominent during the same period. Love accentuates the point that the neglect of the environment in literary studies during the 1970s and 1980s cannot be attributed to the politics of professors: "most of us in the profession of English would be offended at not being considered environmentally conscious and ecologically aware" (227). Professors attending to race, gender, and class in the classroom often no doubt attended to the environment as well, only outside the classroom. To comprehend the emergence of this "holy trinity," one needs to attend not just to politics but to theory as well. Politics and theory married happily in the areas of race, gender, and class, but in the area of the environment they did not even start dating.

While ecocriticism began during the 1990s to become visible in literary studies, it developed independently of the theoretical developments in the preceding decades that fostered the interest in race, gender, and class; and to this day, it remains relatively marginal compared to the continuing interest in this trio.2 Some argue that ecocriticism, to overcome this marginality, needs ultimately to engage the theory that effectively discouraged attention to the environment:

An ongoing challenge for ecocritical practice is to get critical theory and ecology to address each other in ways they do not now sufficiently do. To pointedly oversimplify the situation, I would say that critical theory, in its fixation on the constructed character of representation neglects ecology; and ecology, in turn, must suffer its embarrassment in employing theory that threatens always to tar it as "foundationalist." (Roorda 173; italics added)

The italicized words can help to pinpoint the theoretical ideas that led literary studies to neglect the environment while becoming preoccupied with race, gender, and class.

Take the example of patriarchy. To say that there is a hierarchy of sexes rooted in biology is to "essentialize" and to speak as a "foundationalist." The theory that fostered interest in the "holy trinity" overturned such thinking by uncovering ways that representations "construct" what they represent. From this standpoint, one can "deconstruct" patriarchy by demonstrating that it is a "construct" that emerged in history, not a reality rooted in biology, a demonstration that puts this regressive construct into the memory bank of history and prepares the way for a new construct of gender relations. Such constructs may be called linguistic, cultural, or social, but in all cases the premise is that they are built up through linguistic and cultural practices in society. Constructionism fostered interest in the "holy trinity" because it provided theoretical arguments for overturning regressive essentialisms and foundationalisms. Theory and politics met and married happily.

Things are different when one turns to nature and the environment. Whereas the criticism of race, gender, and class seeks to shift from natural essences to cultural constructs, ecocriticism seeks to go in the opposite direction, from constructs to a nature independent of culture imposing limits and necessities that culture can do nothing to alter. Reduction of nature to the status of a mere construct is a problem rather than a liberation. It is thus easy enough to see why constructionists would attend to race, gender and class in the classroom, while reserving their concern for the environment for activities separate from their academic work.

Fredric Jameson sums up the dilemma succinctly. On the one hand, he observes, "Nature is thus surely the great enemy of any antifoundationalism or antiessentialism. . . . To do away with the last remnants of nature and with the natural as such is surely the secret dream and longing of all contemporary or postcontemporary, postmodern thought" (Seeds 46). On the other hand, the heyday of antifoundationalism and antiessentialism in theory coexists with the emergence and flourishing of interest in nature: "How antifoundationalism can thus coexist with the passionate ecological revival of a sense of Nature is the essential mystery at the heart of what I take to be a fundamental antinomy of the postmodern" (Seeds 46-47). For Jameson, this dualistic conjunction of mutually exclusive categories is a historical phenomenon that can only be explained with the help of historical materialism; integrating the two sides of the antinomy theoretically is impossible.

Jameson notwithstanding, such a theoretical integration is precisely the purpose of the present essay. Burke is ideally suited for this enterprise insofar as his work combines realism with theorizing about language characteristic of antifoundationalism. Burke’s theory of the "representative anecdote" will serve as our focal point: first, we will consider it as a general theoretical model; then, we will offer some "notes" toward the development of an anecdote suitable for a Burkean mode of ecocriticism.


Representative Anecdotes in General

"The Representative Anecdote," a chapter in A Grammar of Motives, begins,

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. (59)

Burke’s use of the terms "reflection," "selection," and "deflection" to characterize terminologies is well known, but it is likely that most people know these terms from their appearance in a later essay, "Terministic Screens." The central place of these terms in both texts is a sign of their close connection. If there is a difference between the two, it is because "Terministic Screens" is more abstract, so much so that the theoretical force of the inclusion of "anecdote" along with "representative" may be lost. Whether that is the case, however, is debatable. Consider Burke’s explanation of the source of the term "terministic screens":

When I speak of "terministic screens," I have particularly in mind some photographs I once saw. They were different photographs of the same objects, the difference being that they were made with different color filters. Here something so "factual" as a photograph revealed notable distinctions in texture, and even in form, depending upon which color filter was used for the documentary description of the event being recorded. (45)

One thus may argue that "Terministic Screens" is built around an "anecdote" drawn from photography.

Why say "representative anecdote" rather than simply "representation"? What is the significance of the addition of "anecdote"?

If, as Burke theorizes, any terminology is a "selection" and is therefore a "reflection" of some things and a "deflection" away from others, then terminologies do not reproduce reality, as assumed in the naïve verbal realism that foundationalism typically presupposes, but construct it, as claimed in antifoundational theory. In other words, the trio of "selection," "reflection," and "deflection" is enough to produce an antifoundationalist theory of "representation" compatible with one side of Jameson’s antinomy. But Burke also insists that the development of a terminology requires an "anecdote":

Dramatism suggests a procedure to be followed in the development of a given calculus, or terminology. It involves the search for a "representative anecdote," to be used as a form in conformity with which the vocabulary is constructed. (Grammar 59)

It is the requirement of the anecdote that allows Burke, as we will see, to incorporate the other side of Jameson’s antinomy.

In "The Representative Anecdote" chapter in the Grammar, Burke counterpoints dramatism to behaviorism. Identifying the behaviorist’s animal experiments as the anecdote that prompts the "selection" that informs behaviorism’s terminology, Burke faults this anecdote as unrepresentative because it leaves out the linguistic prowess one finds in humans. By including language, dramatism succeeds where behaviorism fails. Such deliberations about whether an anecdote is representative or unrepresentative parallel the Supreme Court’s when it decides whether the factual and legal circumstances of a particular case make it a suitable "test case" for a significant legal issue. In both, a particular part of reality (anecdote, test case) is evaluated on the basis of how well it represents this reality in general, or at least the dimensions of this reality relevant to one’s concerns.

Conceived as an anecdote, a representation is thus "a part of" reality, not "apart from" it, as in the "prison-house" metaphor that Jameson uses in the title of his study of the linguistic theorizing informing the structuralist tradition, The Prison-House of Language, a mode of theorizing rooted in Saussure’s conceptualization of language as a system of "differences without positive terms" (Prison-House 15). John Steinbeck thinks in the spirit of "a part of" in Sea of Cortez, based on his 1940 boat trip with Edward R. Ricketts to study marine life in the Sea of Cortez (i.e., Gulf of California). Steinbeck remarks that while the purpose of their trip was to record empirical observations of invertebrates and their activities, they recognized in advance,

We could not observe a completely objective Sea of Cortez anyway, for in that lonely and uninhabited Gulf our boat and ourselves would change it the moment we entered. By going there, we would bring a new factor to the Gulf. Let us consider that factor and not be betrayed by this myth of permanent objective reality. (3-4).

Similarly, by theorizing ways that words, however antifoundational in functioning as "selections," are nonetheless real and have real effects, Burke’s theorizing is consistently in the spirit of "a part of" rather than the "apart from" of the prison-house metaphor. For example, in the Grammar, Burke counters the positivist argument that would dismiss as nonsense any statement that could not be verified empirically:

So, one could, if he wished, maintain that all theology, metaphysics, philosophy, criticism, poetry, drama, fiction, political exhortation, historical interpretation, and personal statements about the lovable and the hateful--one could if he wanted to be as drastically thorough as some of our positivists now seem to want to be--maintain that every bit of this is nonsense. Yet these words of nonsense would themselves be real words, involving real tactics, having real demonstrable relationships, and demonstrably affecting relationships. (57-58)

In other words, even constructs, however much they may be "nonsense" by positivist standards, are nonetheless a part of reality (like Steinbeck’s boat), involving tactics and relationships, and having effects. Even when Burke deploys his often-repeated distinction between "motion" and "action," he avoids lapsing into a variant of the Cartesian dualism by connecting these two realities. It is conceivable, he suggests, to have "motion" without "action":

if all verbalizingly active animals were erased from the world (as they in all likelihood some day will be) despite the absence of such speech acts there would still be the motions of the winds and tides, of the earth’s revolutions about the sun, the processes of geology, astronomic unfoldings in general, etc., all going their way without the benefit of verbal clergy here on earth. ("Words as Deeds" 160)

But "action" without "motion" is not possible:

For the "act" of speaking (and of interpreting an utterance) is made possible only by its grounding in two aspects of motion; namely: (a) such physiological motions as the neural processes involved in speaking, hearing, interpreting, and the like; (b) such environmental motions as the vibrations in the air which carry the words from speaker to hearer. . . . Written words would depend on visual rather than auditory kinds of environmental motion, Braille on motions involved in touch. ("Words as Deeds" 164)

Language is a part of the reality of the body and its physical situation, not apart from it. As Burke puts it in later writings, in a formulation to which we will return later, humans are "bodies that learn language."

One possible source for Burke’s preference for "a part of" over "apart from" can be found in the way he conceptualizes the term "representative anecdote" in "Four Master Tropes," included as an appendix in the Grammar, but originally published earlier, in 1941. Synecdoche is the trope that frames Burke’s consideration of the problem of "representation" (Grammar 507-11), and the idea of the "representative anecdote" appears at the end of the section devoted to this trope (510-11). The year 1941, moreover, saw the appearance of The Philosophy of Literary Form, where Burke’s consideration of symbolic action encompasses "the matter of synecdoche, the figure of speech wherein the part is used for the whole, the whole for the part, the container for the thing contained, the cause for the effect, the effect for the cause, etc. Simplest example: `twenty noses’ for `twenty men’" (25-26). Burke adds, "The more I examine both the structure of poetry and the structure of human relations outside of poetry, the more I become convinced that this [synecdoche] is the `basic’ figure of speech, and that it occurs in many modes besides that of the formal trope" (26).3 As a formal trope, a synecdoche may, of course, take the form of the whole substituting for the part or the part for the whole, whereas the synecdochic logic of the representative anecdote, because the anecdote is a part of reality, is limited to the substitution of the part for the whole.

Conceived as a synecdoche, a representative anecdote is thus a part (selection) standing for (reflection) but not coinciding with (deflection) the whole that contains the part. "Twenty noses" is a "selection." It "reflects" a part of the reality of twenty people and it "deflects" attention from other parts. The "anecdote" in this example consists of the "twenty noses." Whether it is "representative," suitable as a "test case" for one’s purposes, is a matter for deliberation.

Burke’s core synecdochic assumption is that no selection can reproduce the whole of reality. One’s anecdotal selection is always a part of reality but it can never be the whole of reality. A terminology by its very nature is reductive in its necessary selectivity. Even a cosmology, Burke stresses in the Grammar, is "a reduction of the world to the dimensions of words" (96).

Burke’s "a part of" antifoundationalism needs always to be distinguished from the "apart from" Saussurean antifoundationalism informing the structuralist and poststructuralist tradition. Burke’s synecdochic logic works by presupposing a reality larger than the scope of any anecdote. The premise, in other words, is that there is a containing reality in general as well as contained anecdotes in particular. By contrast, the Saussurean premise that language is a system of differences with no positive terms eliminates even the limited "reflection" that the synecdoche allows. Burke’s "reflection" is always also a distortion insofar as "deflection" is always present. But at least there is the "reflection" of "twenty noses" for twenty people, whereas the Saussurean differential model results in Derrida’s "there is nothing outside the text" (158), which the "prison-house" metaphor captures in visual terms. At bottom, the differential model turns the relation between words and what is "out there" beyond words into a dualism in which one is "apart from" the other, analogous to the way that Descartes conceives mind as apart from matter. Burke’s "a part of" synecdochic logic refuses such dualism, presupposing instead containing whole and contained part, a la Spinoza, the first great critic of Descartes (see Grammar 146-47 for a contrast between Descartes and Spinoza that aligns Spinoza with Burke’s dramatistic orientation). In The Philosophy of Literary Form, while discussing the term "chart," a precursor of the later terms "representative anecdote" and "terministic screen," Burke observes,

Only a completely accurate chart would dissolve magic, by making the structure of names identical with the structure named. This latter is the kind of chart that Spinoza, in his doctrine of the `adequate idea,’ selected as the goal of philosophy. . . . A completely accurate chart would, of course, be possible only to an infinite, omniscient mind" (7).

The whole is beyond our reach, accessible only to "god," but we are a part of it, not apart from it. While we cannot comprehend it absolutely, we can profitably deliberate about which anecdotes provide the most suitable test cases for representing it.

In suggesting, as noted earlier, that the synecdoche is "the `basic’ figure of speech," Burke concludes that "synecdochic representation is thus seen to be a necessary ingredient of a truly realistic philosophy" (Philosophy 26). Offering examples of sensory, artistic, and political representation, Burke insists that in each case there is a real part in a real whole and that the former can realistically serve to represent the latter. In different situations, there may be more or less room for deliberation about which part does the best job of representing the whole, but by virtue of this synecdochic realism there is always a part linked to the whole that contains it. This realism is antifoundational insofar as the part does not reproduce the whole, as naïve verbal realism presupposes, but constructs it, as antifoundationalism insists. But in Burke’s synecdochic antifoundationalism, the constructing part is "a part of" the larger reality beyond human constructions, the ultimate containing whole that may be equated to "nature" (as defined later, in the second part of the present essay). From this standpoint, antifoundationalism and nature are not at odds. Burke’s synecdoche thus displaces Jameson’s antinomy.


Notes toward a Representative Anecdote for Burkean Ecocriticism.

The term "ecocriticism" implicitly prefers the "eco" of ecology to the "enviro" of environment. Cheryll Glotfelty explains the difference:

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

Insofar as humans see themselves as surrounded by an "environment," they tend to overlook the fact that they are simultaneously the environment for nonhuman organisms. More generally, while living things respond to what environs them, they become, in their responses, that which environs other things. "Ecology" ("everything is connected") captures monistically what "environment" tends to obscure dualistically. This difference is equivalent to the difference between "a part of" ("eco") and "apart from" ("enviro")

In his seminal coining of the term "ecocriticism," William H. Rueckert is on the "eco" side of this distinction. He proposes, "Energy flows from the poet’s language centers and creative imagination into the poem and then, from the poem (which converts and stores this energy) into the reader" (109-110). Textual activity, in other words, involves a process analogous to the transfers of energy that occur within ecosystems to sustain life. Like human activity in general, textual activity is a part of the web of connections sustaining and/or threatening ecosystems. A representative anecdote for Burkean ecocriticism should arguably participate in this web on two levels: (1) it should incorporate the web in its anecdotal model (the "eco" principle of "a part of"); (2) it should itself participate in this web by heightening our awareness of it (as Burke sought to heighten "our consciousness of linguistic action generally" [Grammar 317]).

Deliberations about the choice of a representative anecdote can be lengthy, as Burke shows in reviewing the deliberations that led to his choice of the U. S. Constitution as an anecdote to represent the purification of war (Grammar 323-38). These deliberations, moreover, started Burke down the road from what he originally envisioned as an introductory chapter, "The Constitutional Wish," to what we know as A Grammar of Motives. With this example of how complex such deliberations can become, the deliberations about a representative anecdote for Burkean ecocriticism offered here are conceived as "notes" rather than a final product, an "oar" that hopes to start a "conversation" on this topic in the "parlor" of the KB Journal.

The anecdote I will introduce to start this "conversation" is a plot from a novel, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest. A representative anecdote is in a sense a starting point. As Burke explains:

The informative anecdote, we could say, contains in nuce the terminological structure that is evolved in conformity with it. Such a terminology is a "conclusion" that follows from the selection of a given anecdote. Thus the anecdote is in a sense a summation, containing implicitly what the system that is developed from it contains explicitly. (Grammar 60)

A particularly clear example is the anecdote from photography, cited earlier, that Burke introduces in "Terministic Screens." The "color filters" yielding different photographs provide the anecdotal model for the terminology of selection, reflection, and deflection evolved in conformity with it. Hence, after summarizing Yamashita’s plot, I will turn to Burke to discuss four of its components: (1) technology, (2) apocalypse, (3) life’s creativity, and (4) "counter-nature." In this fashion, Burke texts will provide "the terminological structure . . . evolved in conformity with it [the anecdote]."

Yamashita’s plot is built around the Matacao, a mysterious plastic substance with unusual properties, including magnetism, which begins to force its way through the surface of the earth in cleared areas in the Amazon rain forest. Initially it seems to be a geographical name for the place characterized by this substance but when it begins to be discovered in other places as well, it becomes the name for the plastic substance itself. With the Matacao, Yamashita takes a kind of ecological poetic license. Just as one can take poetic license with science to produce science fiction, Yamashita takes poetic license with dimensions of the ecological crisis to produce the Matacao and to make it the protagonist in her novel, which is essentially about the beginning, middle, and end of the Matacao.

When the Matacao appears, it attracts widespread attention. Numerous characters from three continents, linking the developed north to the underdeveloped south, are drawn to it. There is also worldwide speculation about its origins, which are not revealed until the end, when it is revealed, in Yamashita’s principal exercise of poetic license, that the Matacao originates in enormous landfills in highly developed parts of the earth. Material in these landfills is pressured into lower layers of the earth’s mantle, where it becomes molten enough to be squeezed through underground veins to virgins areas of the earth, where it surfaces.

An American entrepreneur discovers that Matacao plastic possesses properties making it suitable for a myriad of new technologies that make possible the production of new infrastructure and a wide range of products. It even begins to appear possible to use it to make synthetic food as well as other substitutes for natural things. Matacao feathers, for example, prove to be indistinguishable from natural feathers. Near the end of the novel, an amusement park called "Chicolandia" is created entirely out of Matacao plastic:

Everything in Chicolandia was being made of Matacao plastic, from the roller coasters to the giant palms, the drooping orchids and the buildings. . . . The animated animals, also constructed in the revolutionary plastic, were mistaken for real animals until people questioned their repetitive movements. . . . (168)

"Chicolandia" is thus similar to the "Culture-Bubble" in Burke’s "Towards Helhaven" (to be discussed shortly) insofar as each is designed to dramatize a technological remaking of the totality of reality.

As the plot moves towards its conclusion, however, it does not allow us to forget our earthly status in the cosmos. In the plot’s crowning irony, as the characters seem to separate themselves more and more from the earth through their miraculous technological exploitation of the Matacao, these characters remain in fact as embedded as ever in ecology’s web of connections, as they eventually are forced to realize in the plot’s apocalyptic climax.

Yamashita prepares for her conclusion midway through the novel when she underlines the creative dimension in ecology’s web of connections by juxtaposing (1) the multiple cultural uses of the Matacao that flourish when it is first discovered with (2) the diverse animal responses to a mysterious junk yard, filled with abandoned aircraft and cars, in the Amazon forest. Animals, it is discovered, exploit and even feed off this junk in diverse ways.

The ecological value of diversity is dramatized near the end of the novel when an epidemic strikes. Many die, but not all. It is stressed that a certain percentage of the population proves to be immune to the disease. Homogenizing effects of capitalism are part of the reason for the epidemic but an underlying biological diversity based on random genetic variation protects the species from extinction. The homogenizing effects of capitalist exploitation of the Matacao, however, are another matter. These effects, produced in the name of markets and profits, quickly wipe out the cultural diversity that initially flourishes at the Matacao, thus preparing for the catastrophic apocalypse that concludes the novel. Bacteria appear that can feed on Matacao plastic. The homogenizing effects of technological exploitation of Matacao plastic turn out in the end to create conditions allowing these bacteria to flourish as never before. The homogenizing effects of the technological exploitation of the Matacao eliminate the protections of diversity. Destruction of the technological world is total. The corporate chief who spearheaded the technological development of Matacao plastic leaps to his suicidal death. Human survivors are left with ruins.

Technology is the most obvious area of overlap between Yamashita and Burke. Technology becomes particularly prominent in Burke’s later writings. As Burke explains in the "Afterword" that he wrote for the 3rd edition of Permanence and Change,

I need not decide, or ask the reader to decide, whether such a high development of Technology is to be celebrated or to be classed as a compulsion. I am but asking that we view it as a kind of "destiny," a fulfillment of peculiarly human aptitudes. Viewed thus, Technology is an ultimate direction indigenous to Bodies That Learn Language, which thereby interactively develop a realm of artificial instruments under such symbolic guidance. (Permanence 296)

It is hard to imagine that there can be much debate about the inclusion of technology as one of the components in any anecdote for Burkean ecocriticism. Whether the same can be said for apocalypse, the second of the four components I am proposing, is no doubt more debatable. Other "oars" may very well have different ideas.

My principal Burkean justification for including this component is Burke’s Helhaven narrative, which envisions, in Burke’s words, "an apocalyptic development whereby technology could of itself procure, for a fortunate few, an ultimate technological release from the very distresses with which that very technology now burdens us" ("Towards Helhaven" 61). This "apocalyptic development" is "HELHAVEN, the Mighty Paradisal Culture-Bubble on the Moon" (62). Projecting an apocalyptic future goes beyond factual realities like technology, of course, to words that by positivist standards are "nonsense," but as we have already seen Burke insists that such words are nonetheless realities that can produce real effects.

Other "oars" may argue that the Helhaven essays ("Towards Helhaven" and "Why Satire") are so central to Burke’s identifiably ecocritical concerns that they should be the basis for any anecdote for Burkean ecocriticism (that was my own first thought before I decided, at least tentatively, to use Yamashita’s plot instead). The principal reason for my preference is that Yamashita’s plot includes more fully than the Helhaven essays my third component, life’s creativity, as Burke discusses it in Permanence and Change.

Before turning to this third component, however, some consideration needs to be given to an issue relevant to the inclusion of any apocalypse, regardless of whether it is the one in Yamashita or the one in the Helhaven essays. This issue revolves around the relation of the present and the future. Burke defines it in his consideration of the grammar of "present" and "future": "the present forever is, whereas the future forever is not" (Grammar 334). In making this observation, Burke’s concern is that the purification of war not be conceived as a future that, by definition, can never be the present. He contrasts religious and secular futurisms, preferring the former to the latter insofar as the religious strategy projects a future that can be realized in the present:

We might bring out the contrast in doctrinal tactics between religious futurism and secular futurism thus: Whereas both would merge present and future, religious futurism does so by reducing the future to the present, whereas secular futurism reduces the present to the future. That is, the religious tactic says: Find what now is within you, and you have found what you will be. The secular tactic says: Find what will bring you promises, and you have found what is worth doing now. (Grammar 334)

For the purification of war, Burke wanted something realizable in the present rather than in a future that "forever is not." The ecological crisis is a very different context, where one fears ecological catastrophe is realizable in the present, perhaps not immediately, but sooner or later. At the same time, one does not want to project apocalyptic catastrophe into a future that "forever is not," since one then need not worry, since the catastrophe will never come.

Burke indicates how the essence of a present situation may be defined narratively from the standpoint of either the past or the future. In the Grammar, he limited himself to the past, but later, he revised his earlier formulation:

When considering "the temporizing of essence" in the Grammar, we were both put on the trail and misled somewhat by the suggestions in the word "prior." Following its leads, we saw how the search for "logical" priority can, when translated into temporal, or narrative terms, be expressed in the imagery of "regression to childhood," or in other imagery or ideas of things past. This concern with the statement of essence in terms of origins (ancestry) caused us to overlook the exactly opposite resource, the statement of essence in terms of culminations (where the narrative notion of "how it all ends up" does serve for the logically reductive notion of "what it all boils down to"). (Rhetoric 15)

From this standpoint, then, an apocalyptic narrative may be seen not as a future that forever is not, but as a way of defining the present in terms of the logical conclusion (future) of present practices. Such a future would not be a mere "forever is not." Rather it would be like the lung cancer ("how it all ends up") that tells us what smoking at the present time "boils down to."

Burke’s vision of Helhaven is conceived precisely as such a "temporizing of essence" that looks to the future rather than the past. As Burke observes,

There you glimpse the principle behind the vision [of Helhaven]. . . . We need but extend to "perfection" the sort of conditions we already confront in principle when we buy bottled water because the public water supply is swill; or when a promoter, by impairing the habitability of some area (as, for instance, with a smeltery or a jetport), makes profit enough to build himself a secluded, idyllic estate among still uncontaminated lakes, meadows, and wooded peaks. ("Towards Helhaven" 61).

In other words, the "Culture-Bubble" on the moon (apocalyptic future) "temporizes the essence" of present practices such as the substitution of technologically produced bottled water for water polluted by technology. 4

The specific form of Helhaven’s apocalypse (technological production of a "Culture-Bubble" to replace what technology destroyed) appears in Yamashita’s plot in the technological exploitation of Matacao plastic to begin to replace natural objects themselves with Matacao substitutes indistinguishable from the originals, just as Burke’s Culture-Bubble includes things like "an actual manmade shoreline, with waves, and breakers, splendid for surfing, and the best white sand for luxuriating on the beach (though protected from the sun and exposed only to a scientifically designed substitute" ("Towards Helhaven" 62). But in Yamashita’s plot, unlike the Helhaven narrative, such replacements do not themselves constitute the plot’s apocalyptic conclusion, which involves natural processes contrasting the protections of biological diversity (the epidemic) with the absence of such protections (the bacteria eating the Matacao). Other "oars" may cite this difference as a reason for preferring the Helhaven essays to the Yamashita plot.

But before doing that, I would urge looking to Yamashita’s plot for an anecdotal counterpart to Burke’s discussion of life’s creativity, my third component, in Permanence and Change. A principal text that serves as a basis for this discussion is D. H. Lawrence’s provocative claim that "growing crops make the sun shine" (Permanence 222, 231-32, 250-55, 258-61), a claim that Burke subjects to his test of "recalcitrance" (258-61). Ultimately, the core issue boils down to identifying exactly what it is in the present that one wishes to define futuristically. The apocalypse in the Helhaven narrative defines the essence of the present practice of using technology to create replacements for what technology destroyed in the first place. Burke’s discussion of Lawrence offers an orientation that may lead one to wish to foreground different features of our present situation.

Burke concedes that Lawrence’s claim cannot be accepted on its face: "The objection to Lawrence’s statements is that they have not yet undergone the scope of revision required by the recalcitrance of the material which would be disclosed were we to extend them into all walks of investigation" (256). Revising Lawrence, Burke counterpoints positivism to Lawrence:

The positivist, looking upon the universe as created, says that the last chapter [crops] flows inexorably from the conditions laid down in the first chapter [sun]. Lawrence would look upon the universe as being created. He would restore the poetic point of view. Behind the effrontery of his assertions, he seems to be saying simply that the last chapter is not caused by the first, but that all the chapters are merely different aspects of a single process. (231-32)

In other words, the fundamental reality is the totality of interconnections that sustain life. This totality works not by linear causality (the half-truth that the sun makes the crops grow) but by the ecological causality of interdependent parts (sun light is part of the totality of life on earth, whereas on Mars, it is part of the totality of lifelessness). Lawrence, Burke suggests, restores the poetic viewpoint in focusing on the creativity at the heart of life: "the creative, assertive, synthetic act. He [Lawrence] would stress or ignore, in accordance with the authority of our biologic genius as he conceives it to be" (259). (Incidentally, insofar as Permanence and Change is also trying to restore the poetic viewpoint, one may read Burke’s discussion of Lawrence as a roundabout way in which Burke subjects himself to his test of "recalcitrance.")

While one associates creativity most directly with human activity, one needs also to recognize that there is creativity in the evolutionary processes that invent new species, even if they work by way of coincidences of random genetic variation and "natural selection." "Selection" on the side of human reality; "natural selection" on the side of nonhuman reality, which needs to be extended to include the biological level of human life, the "motion" that makes "action" possible. What "natural selection" will do to or for us depends on the "selection" informing our own programs of action.

Life’s creativity makes it impossible to map in terms of mechanistic causality the process whereby organisms respond to what environs them and in doing so produce effects that environ others. Because of the creativity rooted in "selection" and "natural selection" what comes into organisms and what goes out does not move in a straight, wholly predictable linear line. Because of selectivity, there is always a degree of creativity on both human and nonhuman sides in the ecological web of life ("everything is connected").

Nature is today perhaps best defined as equivalent to this open, creative system, which contains human and nonhuman forces, neither of which totally controls the other, as in global warming, an effect of human and nonhuman interaction resulting in a hybrid with human and nonhuman components. As a hybrid, nature is no longer independent in the sense of pure nature (i.e., nature free of human fingerprints), but it nonetheless remains independent in the sense that it is a force that can produce effects that humans can neither anticipate (unintended consequences) nor alter without changing their own practices (e.g., the changes that would be needed to reverse global warming). In this hybrid nature, humankind is a part of nature not apart from it, as modernity, beginning with the Cartesian dualism, has tended to think.

Yamashita’s apocalypse reveals a nature that takes this hybrid form insofar as human selection (technological creativity) interacts with natural selection (bacteria that can feast on Matacao plastic), resulting in a catastrophe that defines the limits of humankind’s control of the Earth’s ecosystem. In other words, this apocalypse defines in futuristic terms the essence of the present in the comprehensive terms one finds in Burke’s discussion of Lawrence. The present practice of using technology to create replacements for what technology destroyed (the Helhaven apocalypse) can still be part of the story, but the Permanence and Change material allows one to tell a larger story, one that both incorporates the ecological web of life and participates in this web by heightening our awareness of it, just as Burke, as noted earlier, sought to heighten our consciousness of linguistic action.

Burke’s "Counter-Nature," the last of my four components, encompasses transformations of the nonhuman like the substitution of a technologically engineered Matacao world for the nonhuman world, but it encompasses much more. As Burke stresses, "Counter-Nature" includes not only "immediate" but also "remote" consequences of human transformations of nature that together "introduce conditions of livelihood (including grave manmade threats to survival) quite alien to the state of nature to which our prehistoric ancestors successfully adapted" (Permanence 296). The technological Matacao world exemplifies the "immediate" consequences that tend to preoccupy us as we consume innovation after innovation in our consumer culture. But the greatest dangers often prove to be unintended consequences of technological innovation (e.g., global warming). These are more "remote," typically making their presence felt long after the introduction of the technologies that produce them unintentionally.

The phenomena that Burke calls "Counter-Nature" prompt Michael Serres to observe, "Global history enters nature; global nature enters history: this is something utterly new in philosophy. . . . [W]e receive gifts from the world and we inflict upon it damage that it returns to us in the form of new givens" (4, 43). Global warming would be an example of a "new given," not a "given" without human fingerprints (the traditional object of scientific study) but a "given" with such fingerprints (which poses for science the new problem of sorting out human and nonhuman causes, as in debates about global warming where one can find different calculations about the roles played by human and nonhuman forces). Yamashita’s Matacao is emblematic of such "new givens," as accentuated in the novel by the debates about its origins that eventuate in the discovery of the human and nonhuman forces that produced it. In such "new givens," as Serres suggests, history ceases to be a purely human story told against an unchanging natural backdrop. Instead, nature and history become inextricably intertwined in the production of "Counter-Nature." Yamashita’s plot thus encompasses both the "immediate" and "remote" transformations of the nonhuman that Burke includes within the scope of "Counter-Nature," which seems destined to replace what used to be nature with the new hybrid nature we are beginning to live within today.

In this fashion, then, Burke texts on technology, apocalypse, life’s creativity, and "counter-nature" can provide a "terminological structure that is evolved in conformity" with the anecdote of Yamashita’s plot. It is hoped that the deliberative "notes" offered here about a representative anecdote suitable for Burkean ecocriticism are enough to start a "conversation" on this topic. To move this "conversation" along, other "oars" may (a) tweak and/or critique my proposal, (b) offer different anecdotes (Burke tells us how he experimented with a number of them in developing his anecdote for the purification of war), (c) propose ideas for different components to look for in an anecdote, or (d) add whatever other thoughts may come to mind. Your "oar" is welcome.


Robert Wess is Associate Professor of English at Oregon State University.

1 See Albrecht, Arac, Genter, Parrish, Pease, and Scruggs. Going beyond literary studies, see Crable and Eddy.

1 The term "ecocriticism" was coined by William H. Rueckert, the dean of Burke scholars, in an article first published in 1978 and later reprinted in The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, but it did not begin to be widely used until the 1990s.

3 As I have suggested elsewhere (Wess 112-17), Burke scholars might profit from attending less to what Burke says about metaphor and more to what he says about synecdoche.

4 Similar examples appear in "Why Satire, with a Plan for Writing One," where Burke also includes the following formulation: "Even now, the kingdom of Helhaven is within you" ("Why Satire" 80), a perversion of religious futurism in which the future to be feared is emergent in the present. Note that an ecocritical anecdote may be designed to encourage a present reality insofar as it seeks to encourage the present practices needed to avert ecological catastrophe. From this standpoint, an analogue to religious futurism would be appropriate for an ecocritical anecdote.

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