Burke, Socioecology, and the Example of Cuban Agriculture

Joshua Frye, Purdue University

Abstract: This essay contributes the term 'socioecology' to the lexicon of Burkean ecocriticism, a term that can serve to articulate Burke's concern with ecological holism. The social/earth connection in socioecology may be analogized to the language/body connection in symbolic action. The essay illustrates this term with examples from the Burke corpus, theorizes it with the help of Burke, and applies it, mainly to the example of the Cuba's current experimental organic agriculture system.

IT IS FOR GOOD REASON that Kenneth Burke has been called a “pioneer of ecocriticism” (Coupe, 2001). Burke’s longstanding concerns about the ecology of our planet are widely recognized. Little attention has been given, however, to the possibility of extending use of Burke’s theorizing of interrelations between the symbolic realm of language and the bodily realm of motion to the theorizing of the interrelations between social structures and the earth’s ecology. In other words, one may analogize “symbolic action” (the language/body connection) to “socioecology” (the social/earth connection). It’s arguable, moreover, that the concept of socioecology doesn’t import ideas into the Burke corpus so much as it provides a focal point around which to organize material that is already there, waiting to be used as a framework to help ecocriticism discern ecological implications of social practices. The term “socioecology” is particularly Burkean insofar as it displaces the more familiar “socioeconomic” to focus attention on cooperation, communication, and the earth instead of reducing the earth to mere raw materials for production and human beings to mere cogs in the economic system.

To add “socioecology” to the lexicon of Burkean ecocriticism, the present essay will begin with examples of Burke’s concerns with the social/earth connection in both his writings and his life-style. Then, in its second part it will undertake a theoretical consideration of socioecology, particularly its interrelation of cooperation, communication, and the earth. Finally, after briefly considering a few examples of contemporary sustainable agriculture philosophy and practice, its third part will apply the concept of socioecology to the Cuban example.


However distinct symbolic action and socioecology may be, analysis of one can sometimes coalesce with analysis of the other. A notable example appears in the context of Burke’s conceptualization of symbolic action in the title essay in The Philosophy of Literary Form. This is one of his most extensive discussions of symbolic action, containing among other things his identification of the respects in which a symbolic action is a “chart,” a “prayer,” and a “dream.” It’s in the course of elaborating on the “chart” dimension that this coalescence occurs.

Prior to its occurrence, Burke is stressing, in opposition to what he sometimes calls “naïve verbal realism” (1966, p. 5), that a “chart” is “magical” insofar as it necessarily is to some extent a “decree” rather than an a verbal reproduction of reality:

It may annoy some persons that I take the realistic chart to possess “magical” ingredients. That is, if you size up a situation in the name of regimentation you decree it a different essence than if you sized it up in the name of planned economy. The choice here is not a choice between magic and no magic, but a choice between magics that vary in their degree of approximation to the truth. (1973, p. 6)

“Regimentation” and “planned economy” are shorthand for competing views of economic policy in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s (The Philosophy of Literary Form first appeared in 1941). “Regimentation” is the laissez faire argument that planning is equivalent to regimenting, something to avoid. It decrees that planning has a negative essence. “Planned economy” does the opposite, decreeing a positive essence by stressing the need for “planning” to avoid the economic catastrophe of the recent past.

In this context, Burke adds that “regimentation” and “planned economy,” however great their differences, are similar in assuming “that increased industrial production is itself a good” (1973b, p. 6). This similarity prompts Burke to wonder whether what’s needed is an alternative to both, and it’s at this point that the coalescence occurs:

But when we recall that every increase in the consumption of natural resources could with equal relevance be characterized as a corresponding increase in the destruction of natural resources, we can glimpse the opportunity for a totally different magic here, that would size up the situation by a different quality of namings. And when I read recently of an estimate that more soil had been lost through erosion in the last twenty years than in all the rest of human history, I began to ask whether either the “regimentation” magic or the “planned economy” magic is close enough approximate for the naming of the situation in which we now are. (1973, p. 6)

In this passage, Burke’s is continuing his analysis of the “chart” dimension of symbolic action, indicating how different charts or “namings” direct one’s attention differently, leading to different social practices. But in indicating how different “namings” promote different relations with the earth, he becomes an analyst of socioecology as well as symbolic action. From this socioecological standpoint, he can go beyond his demonstration of how the “chart” dimension of symbolic action works to critique the ecological implications of both “regimentation” and “planned economy.”

Socioecology is narrower in scope than symbolic action in the sense that symbolic action occurs in all areas, whereas socioecology concerns itself with only one area and thus surfaces only when Burke turns his attention to this area. But in another sense socioecology is broader in scope in its concern with the “big picture,” the holistic interaction between social structures and the earth that may be conceived as the ultimate container of all symbolic acts, which all involve the social dimension of verbal action and the motion of the body that is embedded in the processes sustaining life on earth.

Burke is most explicitly socioecological in those cases where he concerns himself directly with this “big picture.” Perhaps the best-known example of these is Burke’s famous prediction in Attitudes toward History, first published in 1937:

Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention. He teaches us that the total economy of this planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone. . . . So far, the laws of ecology have begun avenging themselves against restricted human concepts of profit by countering deforestation and deep plowing with floods, droughts, dust storms, and aggravated soil erosion. And in a capitalist economy, these trends will be arrested only insofar as collectivistic ingredients of control are introduced. . . . (1984a, p. 150; Burke’s italics)

Here Burke is socioecological in noting that social structures designed for economic profit can interact with the earth in ways that prove counter productive in the long run. Hawken echoes Burke in arguing that the symbolic logic of the free-market system of commerce is flawed in its incessant externalization of costs that a specific production unit engenders. The loss of top-soil is an example of this. With its heavy machinery, extensive production, intensive irrigation, and high chemical inputs, industrial agribusiness contributed to the onset of the Dust Bowl (Sears, 1935). In her insightful study of the historical context of Burke’s 1937 prediction, Seigel argues that Burke’s ecologically informed thought in Attitudes toward History pivots on systematic criticisms of “technologically infused farming practices” (2004, p. 394).

Seigel also calls attention to the critique of “efficiency” that is evident in Burke’s 1937 prediction and that is spelled out in detail in the entry for “efficiency” in his “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms,” in Attitudes toward History. In this critique, Burke takes as his standpoint the socioecological interrelations among parts in the “total economy of the planet.” From this standpoint, Burke can identify ways that something may be efficient in one way and simultaneously inefficient in another.

But it is not only in his writing that we find Burke critiquing industrial capitalism’s “efficient” exploitation of the earth. Describing himself as “agro bohemian and `Marxoid’” (Burks, 1991, p. 219), Burke extended his critique beyond his writing to a pastoral life style that eschewed the consumerism that came to dominate twentieth century American culture. His refusal of modern conveniences extended even to electricity and plumbing. According to Burks, he liked to call his outhouse and outdoor water pump “Garden of Eden Plumbing” (1991, p. 230). Eventually he yielded but only when his hand was forced. He got electricity in 1949, when he couldn’t get good kerosene any more (Cowley, 1951, pp. 227-28), and he added modern plumbing in the 1960s when Libbie, his wife, had to use a wheelchair because of failing health (Rueckert, 1994, p. 90). Even if it is speculative that these anti-modern choices were in fact emblematic of his agro-bohemian, Marxoid, and artistic-ethical preferences, the fact remains that a life devoid of excessively consumptive behavior allowed for greater concentration on his symbolic work and at the same time left a less intrusive “ecological footprint” (for more on this term, see Chambers, et al.).

Burke once stated in an interview that “the only cure for digging in the dirt is an idea. The cure for any idea is more ideas. The cure for all ideas is digging in the dirt” (2003, pp. 353-354). Burke certainly practiced a balanced, integrative physical and symbolic lifestyle—simple and austere yet complex and celebrative. Burke believed that because of the tendency in human motivation to take something to the end of the line (entelechial motivation), a life devoted to the endless toil of motion in an advanced, industrial capitalist society was driven by the “idiotic baubles that keep millions frantically at work” (1984a, p. 258). He accordingly refused the material amenities of that lifestyle for a simple, pastoral one that he felt was more conducive to symbolic labor. Such a lifestyle resonates with many strands of environmental and back to the land movements. Trainer, for example, called for a society in which frugality was valued and practiced over wastefulness, and where unscrupulous over consumption was replaced with a higher quality of life emanating from alternative sources of satisfaction.


Socioecology, like symbolic action, functions at—and through—a nexus. While symbolic action helps to explain dynamics between the physical body (motion) and language (action), socioecology may be used to analyze the communicative and cooperative dynamics between a given society or sociocultural group and its relation to and impact on the living earth. That is to say, social beliefs, arrangements, and values are intertwined with specific practices and ways of relating to the earth.

Such attention to relations with the earth would analogically extend Burke’s regular attention to the relations of the symbolic to the physical on individual and societal levels. In stating that “an ‘ideology’ is like a spirit taking up its abode in a body: it makes that body hop around in certain ways; and that same body would have hopped around in different ways had a different ideology happened to inhabit it” (1966, p. 6), Burke emphasizes simultaneously both the social and physical levels. A body housing a commitment to organic farming, for example, is sure to “hop around” a farm in a manner significantly different from someone who contracts with Monsanto for seed and pesticide to grow governmentally-subsidized crops. The very design rationale for the human-land relationship is fundamentally disparate in the two cases, and both suggest that the relation of the symbolic to human bodies can easily be extended to the body of the earth. One can similarly broaden the scope of Burke’s term “socioanagogic”:

we have chosen the unwieldy name of the “socioanagogic.” The word is intended to sum up the ways in which things of the senses are secretly emblematic of motives in the social order, so that all visible, tangible entities become an enigma, and materials become a pageantry. . . . (1968, p. xv)

Here, Burke is alluding to sensible, perceivable objects that are part and parcel of a given social order. These objects are empirically observable, but in the context of the social order in which they function, they are emblematic of motives that go beyond the empirical. When participants in the social order see them they see more than meets the empirical eye. For example, a calendar designed by a biodynamic farming group indicates preferred planting dates and times based on variables such as the moon cycle. Both the calendar and the moon are “things of the senses.” Yet both, in the context of this group, are emblematic of social motives that ultimately involve the group’s relation to the earth. (More on biodynamic farming later.)

Theorizing socioecology is achieved through an analysis of the relationships between the term’s constitutive parts. The “socio” in socioecology is comprised of two dimensions: communicative and cooperative; both are necessary and they form a dialectical relationship. That is to say, communication and cooperation co-exist in a sustained dynamic tension. Communicative norms, such as rituals (e.g., The Pledge of Allegiance, interpersonal dialogue in supermarket or bank transactions, The Lord’s Prayer, or soil jeremiads1), can both lead to and be a consequence of cooperation; they are the stuff of social cohesion. There is much textual evidence to assert that for Burke, communication and cooperation are more or less synonymous. In Permanence and Change, Burke treats communication and cooperation as linguistically interchangeable in many places and goes so far as to write: “life, activity, cooperation, communication—they are identical” (1984b, p. 236).

Although communication and cooperation are thus for Burke somewhat identical, there is also reason to believe that he has a more subtle, mysterious, ontological view of the processes and practices that make up the “socio.” There is one way that Burke characterizes communication and cooperation that is particularly useful for the purposes of socioecological criticism. On the level of the individual, Burke claims that activity is crucial as inactivity is equivalent to biologic death; individuals stay active on the social level by communicating, cooperating, participating (1984b, pp. 235-36). He then takes an additional step:

To specifically link up the matter of cooperation with the ethicizing of the means of support: We may glimpse something of the relationship between individual minds and collective enterprise by noting the part which such unifying concepts as totem, godhead, nation, class, or group play in mental integration. The individual’s deepest means of support in the civic texture resides in such a communicative or cooperative bond. By it he is “transcendentally” fortified. His personal solidity depends on his allegiance to it. (1984b, p. 236)

Burke thus conceives an almost ontological bonding between the individual and the collective arising from “the ethicizing of the means of support.” It’s in this mode of “ethicizing” that one can find in Burke ways to expand the “socio” of communication and cooperation to the “socioecological” connection of the social and the earth.

Burke takes up this “ethicizing” in the context of exploring the “egoistic altruistic merger,” by which he means that action for the self (egoistic) inevitably involves action for something outside the self (altruistic). In a section he calls “Ethicizing of the Means of Support” (1984b, pp. 204 07), Burke theorizes this merger. In perhaps Burke’s most extreme example, he imagines how a man, living alone in the woods and dependent on his gun to hunt game for food, might ethicize his relation to his gun (“Gun for Gun’s Sake”), cleaning it regularly and caring for it lovingly, maybe even “risk[ing] his life in trying to save it, as were he to snatch at it when it was falling over a cliff” (p. 206). Maybe yes, maybe no, but it’s surely easy to agree without reservation to Burke’s selection of the most important “means of support” of all:

The most basic of all, the Earth, is perhaps the deepest source of reestablishment for bewildered sophisticates who, having lost all sense of a moral foundtainhead, would restore themselves by contact with the “telluric.” Does not the very word suggest some massive unwieldy kind of solace, which might explain why so many moral systems still retain their agrarian roots. . . . (p. 205)

The dependence of the “socio” on the earth serves as the ontological premise for Burkean socioecological critique. This dependence would seem to be a fact hard to dispute. The difficulty is less recognizing this fact than cultivating social practices that properly “ethicize” humankind’s relationship to the “means of support” on which it depends for survival.

Just as Burke claims the body is where action and motion meet (1984b, p. 309), socioecological theory suggests that the soil can be understood in the same light: as a kind of physical body (organism) that when met by the symbolic activity of human agricultural technology can respond in a variety of ways. Belfour of the Soil Society claims that different humanly invented systems will have different impacts and outcomes on the soil. For example, she suggests, “good soil structure . . . is greatly influenced by the activity of earthworms. The techniques of modern farming tend to destroy good structure in a number of ways” (1997). If this is the case, then the use of agricultural technology should be gauged by its beneficial or detrimental impact on the non-symbolic motion of the soil, both for the inherent value of microbiological activity in the soil as well as for the instrumentalist value of the soil as a critical resource for food production. For instance, the conventional use of agrochemicals such as synthetic NPK fertilizer, when used in industrial portions for large monocultural crop production, has a very different effect on the soil than does the small-scale use of organic fertilizer derived from compost. While the NPK mixture tends to negatively impact the microbiological mycorrhiza that inhabit plant roots and share a symbiotic relationship, compost actually increases the biological activity in the soil. In positing a philosophical biology, Jonas contends:

Scientific biology, by its rules confined to the physical, outward facts, must ignore the dimension of inwardness that belongs to life: in so doing, it submerges the distinction of “animate” and “inanimate.” A new reading of the biological record may recover the inner dimension—that which we know best—for the understanding of things organic and so reclaim for the psycho-physical unity of life that place in the theoretical scheme which it had lost through the divorce of the material and mental since Descartes. (1966, p. ix)

The psycho-physical unity of which Jonas writes applies in his philosophical biology to organic life on a very basic level. Metabolism, he philosophizes, is the fundamental life process that endows biological life—even microbiological organisms and plants—with a degree of selective responsiveness. Burke addresses the activity of life for human beings and social reality; Jonas considers the basic life process of metabolism for biological life; and socioecology is interested in the intersection between these two in ethicizing the means of support found in the earth.

Applying Burke’s definitional rule of “per genus et differentiam” (1969, p. 408), socioecology would be a genus-level or generic term. Socioecology, as a generic term, may have many species level or specific examples. For example, one specific form of socioecology would be agroecology, or the matrix of agricultural beliefs/knowledge, technology, organizational forms, and practices differing societies, cultures, or sub-cultural groups have invented through their bi-directional communicative and cooperative principles and practices. Other specific forms, existing and possible, may be found in contemporary, alternative epistemological approaches to the earth and its systems. These include deep ecology, the philosophy of holism, and the Gaia Hypothesis. Deep ecology stresses cooperativeness, classlessness, and complexity (Naess, 1973). Holism undergirds the science of ecology, but Smuts (1926), drawing theoretical inferences from his observations in both the human and non-human realm, systematically articulated that the nature of relationships is such that there is reciprocity between the parts and the whole and that, moreover, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and is therefore non mechanistic. Lovelock (1979) postulated that the planet Earth, with all its subsystems (i.e., soil, oceans, biosphere, atmosphere) existed as a single organism with its own internal feedback loops designed to facilitate the conditions for life.

Keeping in mind Burke’s view that the ultimate aim of communication is “ideal cooperation” (1968, p. 216; 1973, p. 311), socioecological analysis aims to increase our understanding of social/earth connections, both good and bad, to equip us to move beyond the current ecological crisis to greater cooperation not only among humans but also between humankind and the earth. In the decades ahead, both forms of cooperation may come to depend increasingly on one another.


Permaculture and biodynamic farming offer ways of conceiving the social/earth connection that contrast with the capitalist conception most familiar to us in the United States. “Permaculture” is a neologism, conjoining “permanent” and “agriculture,” invented by Mollison, founder of the Permaculture Institute (1996, p. ix). In the permaculture approach, conceptual, strategic, and material resources are configured to produce a “designscape” in which all life forms can live harmoniously. The biodynamic approach similarly aims for harmony, but it does this by conceiving the social/earth connection in agriculture as a holistic organism in which all the forms of life involved are understood and treated as aspects of this overarching whole (Pfeiffer, 1940). Such examples of ways to conceive the social/earth connection can be studied profitably from the standpoint of socioecology. But the example I wish to consider here is Cuba, both because it is an experiment playing itself out at the present time in a whole country (albeit a small one that lends itself to experimentation that might be more difficult elsewhere), and because it addresses issues that particularly concerned Burke, especially his “Marxoid” side.

Cuba’s recently implemented organic food system has been called revolutionary (Zepeda, 2003). In 1989, Cuba faced a serious threat to its overall well being. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, subsequent collapse of the Soviet Bloc, and the trade embargos imposed by the U.S., Cuba plummeted into a crisis of resource shortages, including its food supply. U.S. economic warfare made things even worse in 1992, when passage of the “Cuban Democracy Act” prohibited food and medical assistance to Cuba. It is startling to think that in this intense period of time, Cuba’s GDP shrank by 25%, oil imports dropped by 50%, fertilizers and pesticide availability fell by 70%, food imports were reduced by 50%, and 30% of per capita caloric intake disappeared (Zepeda, 2003).

During what became the so-called “Special Period,” a radical change took place where new organizational forms and productive structures came into being. Cuban leadership at the time recognized that this sudden crisis provided opportunity as well as constraint. Cuban leadership surveyed the historical situation, and adopted changes that, in retrospect, can be judged as a pragmatic program of change for the better, given the context in which such policies were rendered. The government turned over to the workers roughly 80% of the land that had been in agricultural production controlled by the state following the USSR model of agriculture. USSR agriculture was heavily bureaucratized, utilized large scale machinery, and high chemical input for extensive production. The new system was highly decentralized, with land use divided into small units called Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs). The number of these approaches 4,000 (Alvarez, 2002). The state still maintained the legal property-rights of the land itself, but the Cuban workers of the land were granted the use of the land, rent free, in perpetuity, while having the private rights to only some of the yield of the land. Anyone who wished to work the land could. Following their socialist propensities, the government imposed quotas for the production of certain crops with the aim of providing basic sustenance to all Cubans. The decision of what to do with the surplus that remained after the quota was met was left to the discretion of the grower. The transformations of the national food system also involved a reorientation of policy and practices to organic, “agroecological” food production technology, and a farmer-to-farmer training methodology. As a result of these widespread reforms, Cubans’ nutrition is considerably better than other Latin American countries with higher per capita GDP (Zepeda, 2003). Moreover, despite the tremendous economic and cultural hardship it has experienced over the past decade and a half, Cuba scores high on many important quality of life indicators.2 In creatively and resourcefully transforming their agriculture, state peasant relations, land use policies, and inter-organizational cooperation, the Cubans released their artistry “through a total social texture” and “let it take more ‘ecological’ forms” (Burke, 1984a, p. 259). In short, Cuba is pursuing its version of “the good life.”3

Socioecological analysis of this Cuban example can take as its point of departure Burke’s critique of efficiency, discussed earlier. In one of his elaborations of this critique, Burke juxtaposes “efficiency,” as typically understood in market economies, to “ecology” to call attention to the error of an overly reductive focus on a part rather than the interrelations among parts in the whole:

“Efficiency,” to borrow a trope from the stock exchange, is excellent for those who approach social problems with the mentality of the “in and out” trader. It is far less valuable for those interested in a “long pull investment.” Otherwise stated: It violates “ecological balance,” stressing some one ingredient rather than maintaining all ingredients by the subtler requirements of “symbiosis.” (1984a, p. 250)

Efficiency, in other words, is one thing from the standpoint of the stock exchange, but a very different thing from the standpoint of ecology. Ecological efficiency prevents long term inefficiencies caused by an undue, exclusive prioritization of the efficiencies of the here and now. Burke speaks socioecologically when he remarks that it’s a “dubious kind of `profit’ that exports two dollar wheat and gets in exchange a Dust Bowl” (1984a, p. 150).

From the standpoint of this ecology efficiency problematic, what is resonant about the transformed Cuban agriculture system is the realization of the interdependence between long-term ecological balance and structures of short term efficiency. After turning over the previously state-owned and managed land to the thousands of denizens in rural areas of the country, the nation’s leadership began to recognize that this decentralized system of food production was actually more efficient in the narrow sense of being more productive (Zepeda, 2003). In this new system farmers have an incentive to be productive because after filling their quota, they are free to use or sell whatever surplus they produce. At the same time, the farmers cannot sell their land but instead have it rent free in perpetuity. Legal ownership of the land remains with the state. Consequently, farmers have incentives not only to be productive in the short term farmers but also to be good stewards in the long term, that is, to be efficient in an ecological sense. Rosset (2000) concurs with this logic: “it is crucial to recognize—and the Cuban example can help us to understand this—that modest-sized family farms and cooperatives that use reasonably sized equipment can follow ecologically sound practices and have increased labor productivity.”

As we saw earlier, Burke advises that the damaging effects on ecological balance due to an oversimplified notion of efficiency will be remedied only when “collectivistic” measures are taken (1984a, p. 150). By preventing the sale of the land and encouraging good stewardship, Cuban agriculture creates incentives to “ethicize” the earth, which has a collectivist value beyond its value to any individual. Burke never denied the individualistic, competitive dimension of human beings but he criticized capitalism for failing to provide incentives “by which the combative equipment of man is made ethical—or social. It tends to leave man’s capacities for `force and fraud’ too purely capacities for force and fraud” (1973, p. 317). The Cuban model suggests the possibility of combining incentives for self aggrandizement with incentives for benefiting the collective so that the competitive can be channeled into the cooperative. Keeping with his “Marxoid” sympathies, Burke contends in “A Dramatist Grammar for Marxism” that whether a social practice succeeds depends on whether it transforms “the passion of class antagonism . . . into the action of general cooperation” (1969, p. 212).

The incentive for ecological efficiency in Cuba’s reformed agricultural system fostered enhanced farmer to farmer training and communication among its various domestic organizations. Cooperation among universities, the government, farmer organizations, and NGO’s has led to “rapid blossoming of agroecological consciousness” (Garcia, 2003, p.107). Cooperative action between symbol using humans and the “nonsymbolic” soil proliferated with the experimentation of agroecological (e.g., organic) practices. Linking the productivity of the land/farmer with minimal commercial and chemical input as a response to the crisis circumstances of the Special Period promoted a stewardship relationship between the farmer and the land. In other words, heightened, more frequent, and more harmonious communication practices among humans, social groups, and non-humans, can be derived from an ecological attitude toward the social/ earth nexus. As Dewey (1958) recognized, “Significance resides not in the bare fact of association, therefore, but in the consequences that flow from the distinctive patterns of human association” (p. 175). How human beings interact communicatively with each other, as well as with the earth, makes a difference. The consequences resulting from the distinctive patterns of association during and after the Special Period in Cuba have functioned to enlarge the circumference of the communicative principle among individuals, social groups, and the earth. By contrast, the narrowing of circumference in advanced, industrialized America (Burke, 1969, p. 91) has resulted in an overly reductive concept of efficiency that does not take into account the full range of socioecological relationships. The manifestations of this mindset can be readily discovered in industrial, “chemicalized” agribusiness, or the burgeoning industry of genetically engineered food technology, which can lead to ecological disharmony and imbalance through inter species gene transfers.

Future Burkean socioecological research could be extended to critique unique or representative social organizations in terms of the impact on the ecological system(s) with which it interacts. Such research would further our understanding of Burke, as well as the mysterious intersections between the symbolic and the earth, and help us to understand what difference differing human symbol-using configurations can make to the physical base of our being. The communicative principle herein is seen as ideal cooperative action because it approaches a purified mode of perspectivism, one that takes into account a wider spectrum of perspectives and challenges a reductive focus on exclusively human systems oriented towards conflict or competition with the earth. But it also helps account for the powerful ways human systems of communication and cooperation—the social in this essay—can spell out different consequences for non human systems. If the unending conversation continues in that direction, it is conceivable that we may

forestall (if it can be forestalled!) the most idiotic tragedy conceivable: the willful ultimate poisoning of this lovely planet, in conformity with a mistaken heroics of war—and each day, as the sun still rises anew upon the still surviving plenitude, let us piously give thanks to Something or Other not of man’s making. (1984a, Introduction, penultimate paragraph)
Let the “thanks” include the ground (literal and figurative) of our being: the living, dynamic soil.


*Joshua Frye is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at Purdue University. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2005 annual convention of the National Communication Association in Boston. The author would like to thank Bryan Crable and others participating in the convention panel for their valuable feedback. The author would like to thank Don Burks for the exemplary tutelage he has provided into the life, mind, and spirit of Kenneth Burke. Thanks also to Robert Wess who provided good council and through his able stewardship helped this essay become what it is. Lastly, the author would like to thank Christiana Frye for her patience, support and inspiration during the writing process.

1. Soil jeremiads are texts that bemoan the historical phenomenon of humans engaged in poor tillage practices and soil stewardship. In the generic rhetorical tradition of other jeremiads, these texts see destructive agricultural practices with regard to top soil loss, contamination, and other agriculture-based soil problems as primarily a moral problem and admonish such practitioners, policies, and social systems to discontinue their depravity. See Beeman and Pritchard (2001) for a broader theorization of soil jeremiads.

2. For example, according to Funes (2002) Cuba has developed and maintained above a 95% literacy rate and an average life expectancy of 75+ years.

3. The section in Attitudes toward History from which this quote was extracted is entitled “Good Life” and is discussing the need for a physicality that is markedly different from the reductive, repetitious, physical movement of the industrial factory. Burke calls for something similar to Aristotle’s peripatetic philosophizing. Helen and Scott Nearing, east coast intellectuals and prominent figures in the “back to the land” movement,” have published a book entitled The Good Life. It is interesting that the invocation of this term by both Burke and the Nearings, originally associated with Socrates, has remarkably similar content. That is, the proper combination of physical and mental labor is productive of health and perchance Aristotle’s eudemonia.


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Burke, Socioecology, and . . . Cuban Agriculture

I find Joshua Frye's essay theoretically convincing and useful; practically, persuasive as far as it goes, but ultimately tantalizing rather than satisfying.

I come at this piece from practical as well as philosophical perspectives. I am involved in agricultural ecology in the community where I live, Lancaster County, PA. Our county has been cited as one of the three best non-irrigated ag resources in the world. It's been listed by some renowned institute in New York as one of the one hundred most endangered natural "monuments" on the planet. Our preservation group is called LAND, the Lancaster Alliance for New Directions. I'm one of the directors. We coalesced 19 years ago specifically to stop a new highway proposed by PennDot for a bucolic strech of farmland east of the city. It would have cut---it will cut if built---right through the heart of Lancaster's famed "Amish Country." The plain-sect church district will be sliced in two. The highway, aptly pilloried as the "Amish Throughway," will bring exponential development in its wake.

So far, we've stopped the potential carnage, but a pivotal decision by PennDot looms just ahead.

Now, theoretically, Frye's case is pellucid, unexceptionable, and gratifyingly Burkoid. His analogy between action/motion on the one hand, and the social/the earthbound on the other, is well taken. His use of Burke's "ethicizing of the means of support" and the "egoistic-altruistic merger" in P&C bring those infrequently-employed notions out of the shadows of Permanence and Change. And I'm always impressed by someone who dredges up from one of Burke's small-print footnotes a gem of a passage like this one:

"We may glimpse something of the relationship between individual minds and collective enterprise by noting the part which such unifying concepts as totem, godhead, nation, class, or group play in mental integration. The individual's deepest means of support in the civic texture resides in such a communicative or cooperative bond. By it he [sic] is 'transcendentally' fortified" (P&C, p. 236).

Neat. That passage serves as a profitable gloss on Burke's assertion in ATH that the individual "I" is, on close inspection, but a collection of corporate "we's."

As to the material application of an egoistic-altruistic merger in the form of Cuban agriculture since the demise of the Sugar Daddy Soviet Union, I perceive well how the new and more-relaxed regimen on the island could work satisfactorily long term. The state owns the land. It can't be sold for comercial development on a private whim. It's "zoned" for agriculture in perpetuity. The workers have a "free" and permanent "lease" on their farm, so to speak. They have a production quota they have to meet. An incentive toward constant care of this vulnerable resource obtains. The collective, altrustic motive is truly and, apparently, effectively served by social norms that "enlarge the circumference of the communicative principle."

Yet, whatever crops they harvest beyond the quota, the farmers can do with what they want: Eat them, preserve them, sell them on an open market. No Buhkarin here, executed by Stalin for suggesting this very innovation in the 1930's. Personal and collective inducements would seem to serve ecological balance, long-term benefit at the possible expense of the kind of "overly reductive concept of efficiency" that capitalist ownership and free enterprise tend to foster.

"Would seem to . . . ." "Apparently." Where's some hard data that would indicate that the Cuban system is actually working as well as advertised? I know we can click into the article on the subject provided at the end of this piece. I'd just like to get a bit of a climpse without all that fuss.

I'll want to look further into this model. It ain't commin' to Lancaster County soon, I realize that. I'll file it, though, in my arsenal of rhetorical weapons for when I confront the local "smart growth" chiselers at their all-day symposium a week from tormorrow.