Burke, Frazer, and Ritual: Attitudes Toward Attitudes

Keith Gibson, Auburn University

Abstract: Attitudes Toward History has long been one of Burke’s most difficult texts to understand. In this essay, I argue that a return to the literary context in which Burke wrote ATH, specifically a revisiting of James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, will help us see how ATH fits into Burke’s body of work, as well as the literary landscape of the time. It will also help us better comprehend the specific role of ritual in the text, a role that may have larger implications for much of Burke’s scholarship.

FOR THE PLACE William Rueckert claims “Burke’s true genius is first evident” (“Rereading,” 244) and the work Thomas Farrell calls “Burke’s first serious foray into the dense thickets of ideology” (40), Attitudes Toward History has received relatively light treatment. Russ Wolin notes that “the book remains largely neglected. References to it outside of a handful of scholars in English and communication studies is slim indeed, and those scholars who do use Attitudes tend to use it piecemeal for their ends1 instead of his” (91). This is perhaps because many readers view ATH as Henry Bamford Parkes, an early reviewer, did: with “a resemblance to a tropical jungle; its fertility is undeniably impressive, but it is difficult to decide how much of it has value” (109-110).

It may be comforting, in the sense that misery loves company, for the 21st century reader to find that Burke’s contemporaries struggled with ATH as well. In a postscript to Sidney Hook’s 1937 review of ATH, Rueckert points out that even at the time of its publication, many readers did not read the book as Burke intended:

I once read a copy of ATH, for example, in which all of Burke’s factual and other kinds of ‘errors’ were carefully noted and corrected in the margin and accompanied by a steadily increasing number of exclamation points and a kind of rising hysteria. It was a compulsive job of negative documentation which filled the margins in a fine hand page after page. But, surely, that careful person missed some essential point about the book and Burke: it was not a historian he was reading, but a visionary, a myth maker and system builder. (Critical, 96-97)

And though we may share some of the difficulties of Burke’s 1930s readers—trying to peer through Parkes’s “tropical jungle,” for instance—we have at least one more that they didn’t: a lack of context.

That’s probably not quite right, though; indeed, ATH seems to suffer from, if anything, too much context. Like the first time I encountered Ulysses in a graduate seminar and discovered that the book of annotations was longer than the novel, readers of ATH are confronted by so many names and concepts that it would be near-impossible to trace down all the individuals he mentions and just as difficult to keep track of how they each play into the text. Much of this context is provided by Burke himself: the text makes explicit reference to, among many others, James, Whitman, and Emerson in the title to Chapter 1; a who’s who of literary modernism in “Poetic Categories,” including Lawrence, Yeats, Eliot, and Pound; and a list of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Voltaire, Bentham, Marx and Veblen as the “great formulators of ‘economic psychoanalysis’” (ATH, 172). Critics then and now have further provided names by which we may compare and better understand ATH. In a 1938 review in Science and Society, Margaret Schlauch pointed out Burke “frankly leaning on Plato’s Cratylus” (108) in the discussion of the overtones of letter sounds in the “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms” (ATH, 236-240). Rueckert connects ATH with Ernst Cassirer’s theory of language in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (Critical, 109). Timothy Crusius identifies the “Nietzschean dimension in Burke’s concept of the self” (39) and the similarity of Burke’s analysis of the symbol to Riceour’s “surplus of meaning” (83). Robert Heath connects P&C and ATH to Jeremy Bentham’s Book of Fallacies (150). Krista Betts Van Dyk suggests we read ATH in the context of Burke’s own novel, Towards a Better Life.

At the risk of simply adding to the thicket of context for ATH, I want to contribute to the conversation in this particular Burkean parlor, and I think there are at least two very good reasons for doing so. First, Burke’s work in the mid-1930s represents a turning point in his thought. As recent articles by Betts Van Dyk, Hawhee, and George and Selzer have pointed out, Burke in the 1930s was turning more toward politics, more toward rhetoric, more toward theory generally, and a clearer view of ATH will help us grasp this transition period in Burke’s thought. Second, Burke as “system builder” is perhaps more important now than he ever has been before; the comic frame explained in ATH is too valuable a tool to be lost in a confusing text. Our current political and social climates practically demand that we approach them with this frame, and I think the effort we expend in better understanding the comic correctives he suggested will more than repay us in successful interactions with other individuals and the groups of which we are all a part. I hope to discuss Burke’s context in a way that provides some useful general background for ATH, as well as a more specific discussion of ritual, a concept that appears throughout the first two parts of ATH, then receives an entire chapter of its own in Part III. Ritual, of course, is an important theme throughout Burke’s work, emerging in the exploration of magic and science in Permanence and Change, in the analysis of religion in The Rhetoric of Religion, and in many points between, but it is in ATH that ritual makes its most overt appearance. The presence of ritual in Attitudes Toward History, though conspicuous, is often misunderstood, particularly when Burke’s musings on ritual and myth in the “General Nature of Ritual” appear seemingly out of nowhere following his five part dissection of history. Burke describes our present society as “a disparate world that must be ritualistically integrated” (ATH 184), and then discusses the seemingly unrelated topics of literary symbolism and tragedy. He then concludes the chapter by returning with a section entitled “Main Components of Ritual,” but he never explicitly ties this topic to his previous chapters on history. The chapter following “General Nature of Ritual” is no help, either; it consists of Burke’s “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms” and does not even attempt to connect any of the preceding material. Thus, we are left to interpret the first chapter of Part III of ATH on its own, and this task has led to much uncertainty about the role the chapter plays in the overall work.

This confusion occurs at least in part because of our general unfamiliarity with a specific text that Burke’s readers in the 1930s knew well, a book whose concepts “since the 1920s . . . have been so widely diffused through academic, literary, and journalistic channels that they are known to many educated people today who have never read the work or any of its abridgements” (Ackerman 99). It is a book that, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, “not only transformed classical studies and comparative religion . . . but it profoundly affected Freud and all later psychoanalysis, such historians as Spengler and Toynbee, Bergson and philosophy, and writers from Anatole France to T.S. Eliot, who based The Waste Land on it” (vi-vii). It is a work of which Lionel Trilling wrote, “Perhaps no book has had so decisive an effect upon modern literature” (14), written by an author he described as “a perfect representative of what Arnold meant when he spoke of a modern age” (15). It is also a text that is only mentioned a single time in ATH and is thus overlooked by most scholars, but which I believe is vital to understanding this important Burke text: it is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. For Burke’s audience, the parallels between The Golden Bough and Attitudes Toward History would have been obvious, and the recognition of them would have made Burke’s entire project, as well as the “General Nature of Ritual,” much easier to understand; for most readers today, The Golden Bough is a book in the Kurtz compound in Apocalypse Now. In this essay, then, I will provide a brief summary of Frazer’s work and demonstrate how The Golden Bough can help clear up some of our confusion about ATH generally and about the role of ritual specifically.

James George Frazer and The Golden Bough

James George Frazer is, if nothing else, a fascinating case study in the rise and fall of academic fame. With the publication of the two-volume first edition of The Golden Bough in 1890, Frazer burst onto the public consciousness in a way surprising for a previously unknown scholar in a very young field. Within the first year of publication, The Golden Bough received at least 25 positive reviews: “Virtually every major newspaper and periodical in Britain gave the book a substantial notice . . . . [N]one was hostile, and the tone of most ranged from favorable to glowing” (Ackerman 98). Frazer’s work quickly became one of the most important works in anthropology: Bronislaw Malinowski, one of Frazer’s students and, of course, an important anthropologist in his own right (and a scholar whose work on the Oedipus Complex Burke discussed in Permanence and Change), wrote that nearly all the leading figures in the field could be seen to “take their cues and orientations from Frazer—whether they agree or disagree with him” (183). One of Frazer’s strengths was his ability to clearly explain complex anthropological concepts and relationships; this greatly enhanced the accessibility of The Golden Bough to non-specialists and accelerated Frazer’s growing popularity in literary circles. Vickery writes that “People doubtless learned of Frazer . . . by word of mouth in casual conversation and impassioned artistic debates” (81), and though 1920s Greenwich Village was not filled with anthropologists, “Frazer’s ideas made themselves felt in nearly every area of the humanities and social sciences, including literary history and criticism” (Vickery 81). Angus Downie reports that Frazer had even achieved a worldwide fame: “his works have been read all over the world, and in France he is something of a national hero, for it is said that there every intelligent young person reads him” (128). Frazer’s influence on early 20th century literature has also been widely documented; the most famous example is The Waste Land, in which T.S. Eliot acknowledges Frazer, but essays have been written locating The Golden Bough in the works of Yeats, Conrad, Joyce, and Lawrence as well (see, for instance, Ackerman, Fraser, and Vickery).The impact of the work was not hampered by its length; even though few people probably read the entire tome (especially the third edition, which, published in pieces between 1911-1915, weighs in at an astounding twelve volumes and 4568 pages; even the abridged version, published in 1922, contains a hefty 864 pages), a familiarity with its concepts was expected in the audience Burke was addressing, an audience comprised of “only a small, elite segment of the highly educated,” according to William Rueckert (Encounters, 117). This portion of the population was almost certain to be familiar with Frazer and his work “even before [they] actually picked up his book. . . . Starting in 1890, throughout Frazer’s career reviews, summaries, and critiques of his work occupied extended space in numerous periodicals,” (Vickery 75) assuring that any of the literary “elites” of the time, and many of the general public, would have had a general idea of Frazer’s claims.

But if a familiarity with Frazer among the esthete audience Burke was addressing in Attitudes Toward History could be taken for granted in the 1930s, it is striking that such general knowledge is almost completely lacking in current academic readers. Indeed, Frazer’s decline in popularity was almost as quick as his ascension, especially among his academic peers. In his textbook originally published in 1923, A.L. Kroeber mentions Frazer only four times in 850 pages, the last of which is a dismissive reference to The Golden Bough as “the anthropological work that long influenced the greatest number of non-anthropologists” (793). Bennett notes that by the 1940s, Frazer and his disciples “were in dubious repute—even worse, they were considered old hat” (34). Ackerman, who points out that Frazer “does not appear in any of the professional lineages that anthropologists acknowledge today,” cites as the main reason Frazer’s old-fashioned research methodology: “he wrote vast assured tomes about primitive religion and mythology without ever leaving the library” (1). Thus, with Frazer so far removed from the academic and literary spotlight, readers today simply do not have the cultural background upon which Burke built ATH. In the remainder of this essay, I will first examine Frazer’s views of the evolution of society and the role of ritual in that evolution, and I will illustrate the ways in which Burke used Frazer’s work as a frame for the general architecture of ATH and the specific role ritual plays in the text.

The Evolution of Society

The Golden Bough began as an inquiry into the origins of the legend of a particular religious ritual involving the succession to the priesthood of Diana at the small town of Nemi in the mountains of central Italy. The priest at Nemi, which carried with it the title of King of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis), was an unusually precarious position, for, as Frazer describes it, “A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or craftier” (GB 1). The candidate (who could only be a runaway slave, not a freeman) must first prove his worthiness by plucking a golden bough from the tree on the shores of the lake; thus, much of the priest’s life is spent circling the tree, hoping to ward off any potential combatants. Frazer was initially impressed by the stability of this ritual, as it seemed to have survived virtually unchanged for centuries. When Frazer first conceived of the project in the early 1880s, he intended his investigation to be a brief one—perhaps a short article—but he soon found himself delving into “certain more general questions” regarding myth and ritual (GB v). When completed the work dealt with, in Frazer’s own words, “the long evolution by which the thoughts and efforts of man have passed through the successive stages of Magic, Religion, and Science” (qtd. in Downie 21).

The Golden Bough was first published a mere 31 years after the appearance of The Origin of Species, so any talk of evolution necessarily drew comparisons to Darwin. Jewel Spears Brooker noted that “As Darwin had attempted to discover the origin of species and chart the descent of man, Frazer and his contemporaries tried to discover the origin of religion and chart the descent of the gods” (544). But there are some important differences between Darwin’s evolution and Frazer’s. First, the original Darwinian evolution is a fairly constant phenomenon; it rambles along at a more-or-less steady pace, never stopping for any extended period. Frazer’s, on the other hand, is much more like the “punctuated equilibrium” theory described by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge in 1972 (and now subsumed into a more general, Darwinian evolution): long periods of little change are interrupted by relatively rapid, large-scale alterations. Burke was, at least, familiar with this view of evolution: in 1935, Burke and Horace Gregory were corresponding about the social implications of Darwin’s theory, when, in a letter dated July 5, 1935, Gregory wrote: “I happen to believe that the evolutionary process is irregular, that the process is a series of cyclic jumps.” This is clearly a view Gregory shared with Frazer, and, as demonstrated in ATH, with Burke as well. Second, Darwin’s theory is a non-directed, random sort of event: nature is not in working toward the best animals; indeed, nature is not “working toward” anything at all. Frazer’s evolution of society, though, is much less random. He believed that humans have been working their way toward the truth ever since they first began trying to explain the world around them (GB 824-827).

This teleological evolution for Frazer began at the very moment that humans began to distinguish themselves from other animals. In fact, the arrival at magic for early humans was almost inevitable: “magic [is] deduced immediately from elementary processes of reasoning, and [is]...an error into which the mind falls almost spontaneously” (GB 63). These elementary processes of reasoning took two main forms: recognizing similarity in causes and effects, and recognizing that contact is a carrier of action. Unfortunately, these two benign observations led to what Frazer calls the Law of Similarity—“[one] can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it”—and the Law of Contagion—“whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact” (GB 12). These two principles formed the basis of nearly all magical rituals, according to Frazer, and the person in a community best suited to their execution quickly rose to positions of great power. By continually displaying his magical power, the magician/king was able to maintain a relatively stable social unit (GB 96-105).

The magician’s power was not infallible, however. Soon the “acuter minds” in the community began to notice that the magician/king did not seem to be in total control; in fact, some began to believe that total control was not possible. As this notion of the unpredictable nature of the world became more prevalent, the belief in a deterministic magic began to give way to faith in a propitiatory religion; rather than control the world themselves, the people tried to please those who actually did. This belief system was predicated on the assumption of an “operation of conscious or personal agents…behind the visible screen of nature” (GB 62). This was a much more complex notion than that underlying magic, but one that did not sacrifice any of the socially cohesive properties of its predecessor; just as magic could not be practiced by the average person, neither would the gods listen to any but the one anointed for the job. Thus, in place of the magician/king, society came to be led by the priest/king.

But the priests were eventually subject to criticism as well. The driving assumption of religion—“that the succession of natural events is not determined by immutable laws, but is to some extent variable and irregular” (GB 824)—turns out to be not entirely true. When close observation is made of nature, an underlying order appears; this makes reliance on a capricious and arbitrary deity seem questionable at best. Thus society moved back in the direction from whence it had come, “to revert in a measure to the older standpoint of magic by postulating explicitly . . . an inflexible regularity in the order of natural events” (GB 825). This “inflexible regularity” is, of course, science, but for Frazer, the shift from religion to science was mainly an afterthought. He had done his job in describing the roots of religion in magic, and he merely noted in passing that religion had now been replaced as well.

As described above, the success and popularity of The Golden Bough made these key tenets of Frazer’s common knowledge in the first half of the 20th century, especially in the literary and academic circles Burke frequented. Burke himself had shown some interest in the evolution of society as early as 1931, when, in an unsent letter, he penned a history of a fictional island people, describing their journey from religion through science and capitalism. Burke first formally addressed Frazer’s ideas in Permanence and Change, where he demonstrated his acceptance of Frazer’s general scheme of “the three orders of rationalization: magic, religion, and science” (P&C 59). His discussion even featured much of Frazer’s language: “both magic and positive science assume a uniformity or regularity of natural processes” (59); “religion stressed an arbitrary principle which could not be coerced but had to be propitiated” (60, original emphasis). Burke began to part ways with Frazer on the latter’s explanations for the transition between magic and religion:

Frazer seems to think that the belief in the efficacy of magic broke down through the discovery of its errors. Yet the rationalization as he describes it was so totally consistent, and so well corroborated by “practical successes,” that I do not see how it could possibly have lost prestige through disproof. The magician’s ability to bring about the orderly progression of the seasons, assure the fertility of seeds, and promote the conception of children was on the whole astoundingly successful. (P&C 60-61).

Instead, Burke suggested, “a system so self-sustaining could be attacked only from without” (P&C 61, original emphasis), and this attack would consist of a new point of view, or, as Burke called it, a “philosophic corrective” (P&C 61). The remainder of the chapter is a brief discussion of how these correctives have worked to move us from magic to religion to science, and the chapter concludes with a short section on the next corrective we will need: “The corrective of the scientific rationalization would seem necessarily to be a rationale of art . . . an art in its widest aspects, an art of living” (P&C 66, original emphasis). From there, Permanence and Change moves into Part II, “Persepctive by Incongruity,” and Burke’s notion of the philosophic corrective remains tantalizingly unexplored.

Until, that is, Attitudes Toward History. From the opening pages of ATH, when Burke describes various frames of acceptance and rejection, the notion of the philosophic corrective is always just below the surface. When he writes that “The pressure of good-evil conflicts on ‘one’ level brought forth the necessity for a solution, and this solution moved the issue to a ‘higher’ level” (ATH 19), he is describing the philosophic corrective of religion. The connections to Permanence and Change are probably not surprising, but when ATH moves to Part II, “The Curve of History,” the reliance on Frazer’s work becomes abundantly clear. The Golden Bough had focused on the transition from magic to religion; Burke’s examination of history in ATH begins just after religion has become entrenched as the main rationalization of western civilization. Burke discusses in great detail how religion began losing credibility with the people, and he explains how science slowly took its place. He also, like Frazer, points out the similarities in the assumptions both magic and science imply about the universe. But Burke is quick to point out the differences in science and magic, particularly as they are translated into social systems. One of the key distinctions is the accessibility of science to the common man. No longer is society dependent on particular individuals to lead them through a dangerous world. Instead, the explanatory truths are available to anyone; this leads to freedom, but it also leads to some uncertainty about social stability. When one person is responsible for keeping a community together, the system is straightforward, but the equality inherent in the science world-view removes the “comfort” of the previous monarchies. Social cohesion is not, however, lost. The comparatively vast amounts of knowledge available through science creates a situation wherein specialization becomes necessary, and this specialization in turn creates mutual dependence. No longer does an entire community rely on a magician or priest as protection from nature; now each member of a community relies on each of the others. This is precisely the situation which emerges in the “Protestant Transition” and reaches full flower in “Naïve Capitalism.” Just as Frazer had sought to explain how cultures moved from magic to religion, so Burke’s “Curve of History” details the philosophic correctives that stimulate transitions from religion to science and capitalism and, further, to Burke’s “Emergent Collectivism.” Thus, it should come as no surprise that many of Burke’s 1930s readers would recognize Burke’s central project in Attitudes Toward History as not only a follow-up to Permanence and Change, but also as something of a sequel to Frazer’s Golden Bough.

Ritual in the Evolution

A general understanding of the nature of Attitudes Toward History is not the only potential benefit of an understanding of Frazer. A more particular puzzle can also be solved—that of what Burke calls the “General Nature of Ritual.” Frazer expounded on the role of ritual in the evolution of society. Since this evolution was mainly related to social cohesion, Frazer’s study of ritual is tied directly to the same phenomenon. It is this characteristic that most interested Burke, and it is this relation that is key to a proper understanding of Burke’s “General Nature of Ritual.”

Very early on in his study, Frazer revealed his distaste for magic. Far from being an objective observer, striving to diplomatically describe the peoples he was studying, Frazer came right out and defined primitive myths as inherently false: “By myths, I understand mistaken explanations of phenomena …being founded on ignorance and misapprehensions, they were always false” (“Introduction” 163). Thus, one of the key questions he poses in his investigation was “How was it that man did not sooner detect the fallacy of magic?” (GB 68). And this is where ritual enters the picture—as the stabilizing force in the society.

The magician was the man who was able to perform the rituals that brought nature under control. He was needed in the community because no one else, allegedly, had the ability to call forth spring after a long winter or bring rain to the dry land. And these rituals were very persuasive in their ability to prolong belief in these “mistaken explanations.” Frazer admits that “the fallacy was far from easy to detect…since in many, perhaps in most cases, the desired event actually did follow, at a longer or a shorter interval, the performance of the rite which was designed to bring it about” (GB 68). Thus, whenever someone started to doubt the power of the magician, the persuasive power of the ritual convinced him to continue to believe. In this way, the magic ritual was truly a “primitive rhetoric” (as Burke would later state in A Rhetoric of Motives), persuading people to remain in the community. Any time belief began to waver, a new ritual would be performed, and faith would be restored.

But, of course, this faith did not last forever: “the shrewder intelligences must in time have come to perceive that magical ceremonies and incantations did not really effect the results which they were designed to produce” (Frazer, GB 65). Here again, the persuasive power of the ritual is the issue; only when people began discovering evidence that seemed more convincing than the results achieved by the magician was there any chance of change. And one of Frazer’s key points is that even as magic was giving way to religion, the prominence of ritual remained the same. If anything, ritual became an even larger part of the typical community. Frazer thus described in detail several religious rituals—the ritual of Adonis, of Dionysus, of the Christian sacrament—and all of them designed with the same goal as the magic rites: convincing the community members of their dependence on the leaders.

What has this to do with the “General Nature of Ritual”? One of the most important pillars supporting Burke’s work is Frazer’s idea of ritual as societal stabilizer. As Burke proceeds through his five-part tour of history, he explains that each one contains its own “casuistic stretches” which aim to prolong its life and stabilize its position. For example, the shifting of the Catholic Church’s position on usury is one of these “stretches,” and such instances are necessarily pieces of persuasion; they are designed to convince people to stick with the status quo. These are precisely the rituals Frazer had detailed; priests would not call forth spring, but they would ensure salvation at a fixed rate.

Of course, Burke took his history much farther than did Frazer. The Golden Bough only briefly peeked at science, and then its tone was purely laudatory, pointing out “the abundance, the solidity, and the splendour of the results already achieved by science” (GB 825). In fact, Frazer believed that science had rescued humans from the clutches of ritual: “Here at last, after groping in the dark for countless ages, man has hit upon a clue to the labyrinth, a golden key that opens many locks in the treasury of nature” (GB 825). For Frazer, science was discovering truth, and since myth is by definition false, science had freed us from myth and ritual. Satisfied with the modern state of affairs, Frazer stopped his history.

Burke, of course, did no such thing—he picks up where Frazer leaves off. Even as religion was giving way to science in the form of the Protestant reformation, Burke was just getting started on his history. Nor was Burke at all satisfied that science had freed us from ritual; in fact, as he argued in Permanence and Change, science was not qualitatively different from magic and religion, it was simply the latest instantiation of ritual (P&C 59-65). And far from being liberating, science introduced a social structure that kept the people more bound than they had been before: naïve capitalism (ATH 142-158). Though there is no magician or priest standing at the head of the community leading the rite, there is an even more powerful force to which everyone bows: money. Burke describes in detail the results of prolonged exposure to this ritual; the only outcome is an uneven distribution of the money and a class warfare that goes on until everyone gets so “pugnacious” (ATH 158) they simply burst out of capitalism and the science rationalization.

The rejection of science and the capitalist society that accompanies it leads to what Burke calls “Emergent Collectivism.” The appearance of this near-idyllic state of affairs is left intentionally ambiguous so “that readers may be induced to participate in the writing of it” (ATH 159). But it apparently involves widespread acceptance of the comic frame: “the charitable attitude towards people that is required for purposes of persuasion and co-operation, but at the same time maintains our shrewdness concerning the simplicities of ‘cashing in’” (166). Burke, then, was clearly skeptical of Frazer’s enthusiasm for science and capitalism, but Burke seemed to acquire some excitement of his own here as he pondered the potentialities of life under collectivism.

The General Nature of Ritual

But what about the “General Nature of Ritual”? Having arrived at the ultimate stage of history, it may be assumed that all is well, that no more correctives are required, and thus that there is no place for ritual. But this is not the case: “Even in the ‘best possible of worlds,’ the need for symbolic tinkering would continue,” Burke claims (ATH 179). In other words, Burke realizes perfection is not possible; the best that can be expected is the right general direction, and “symbolic tinkering” is needed to ensure we are still on course. Burke further explains that even if everyone is in the comic frame and society has become collectivist, the community will still need a symbolism to guide “social purpose,” defined as each person knowing “what he should try to get, how he should try to get it, and how he should ‘resign himself’ to a renunciation of the things he can’t get” (179). This description of social purpose seems to be a re-phrasing of the comic frame, and that should come as no surprise. After all, the comic state of mind as Burke describes it is not something that will be achieved easily, and, once achieved, it will not be easily maintained. Therefore, the attainment of “comic collectivism” is not the end of the struggle; there will continue to be “many kinds of conflict… heightened to the point of crisis, necessitating scrupulous choices between acceptance and rejection” (ATH 179). Regardless of the level of society, the people must work to keep themselves there, constantly employing correctives, and these correctives, as in the past, will come in the form of ritual.

Thus, Burke’s chief concern after describing the rise to collectivism is the rituals that will allow society to stay there. His project has now become much more complex than The Golden Bough; Frazer merely looked into the past and described what he saw. He witnessed certain societal formulations and the rituals that maintained their stability. Burke, on the other hand, found himself peering into the future, speculating on the sort of rituals that could sustain a hypothetical community. And by considering ritual generally, he was able to determine the specific ritual needed for the future situation.

Burke closes in on the newly required ritual by briefly looking back at some of the main aspects of previous ones. Religion, for instance, employed guilt to its great benefit (ATH 180-183). The church was able to convince the people they had sinned before they were born, immediately placing them in a subordinate position: “it built upon the foundations of human guilt, subtly contriving both to intensify people’s sensitivity to the resources of guilt . . . and to allay this guilt by appropriate rituals” (ATH 128). The solidifying nature of ritual was precisely one of Frazer’s main themes in The Golden Bough, and the reminder of this effect puts the reader right where Burke wants him: thinking of ritual as persuasion. Since collectivism will not immediately solve everyone’s problems, persuasion, and therefore ritual, is still important: there will still be “a disparate world that must be ritualistically integrated” (ATH 184).

Permanence and Change also offered some clues to the new corrective ritual. Speaking of Frazer’s succession of magic, religion, and science, Burke noted that the next “corrective rationalization must certainly move in the direction of the anthropomorphic or humanistic or poetic since this is the aspect which the scientific criteria . . . have tended to eliminate” (P&C 65). Thus, just as science moved back toward the immutability of nature after religion, the next corrective will move back toward indeterminism after science. And in ATH, he lives up to his forecast; the corrective ritual designated for a collectivist society is literature.

At this point, late 20th century readers of Burke finally have an advantage over his audience of the late 1930s. Though literature may not be commonly thought of as a corrective ritual, enough scholars, notably Wayne Booth and Steven Mailloux, have argued for the notion of literature as rhetoric that it does not seem strange to many readers today. Burke made the case by, in discussing Shostakovich’s play, introducing the notions of universal and factional tragedy (ATH 185-190). In the former, the “scapegoat” represents everyone, and as he is “punished” for his crimes, we feel pity for him, but also some semblance of vindication for our own shortcomings. A factional tragedy, on the other hand, places the scapegoat in an adversarial relationship with the audience: he is the enemy. We see the results of his actions, but in this context, they are not “punishments,” they are “just desserts.” There are two possible types of persuasion inherent in these modes of tragedy. First, a factional tragedy can remind us of what we do not want to become. By portraying characters with undesirable traits and then illustrating the eventual repercussions of those actions, the audience is persuaded to remain on the path. Second, the universal tragedy can be a gentle (or occasionally not so gentle) rebuke; by seeing society as it is and where that particular track will take it, the audience is persuaded to alter its behavior.

Thinking back, these are precisely the two types of persuasion inherent in all other rituals: preventing people from leaving the society and pulling them back when they do. Frazer had specifically discussed this aspect of the magic ritual (GB 96-105), and Burke pointed to it in religion (ATH 128). And now Burke identified the same principles at work in the fourth ritual, literature. But factional and universal tragedy are not the only types of literary persuasion Burke illustrates in the “General Nature of Ritual.” He also points out the corrective power of symbolism (191-196), synthesis (196-200), and analysis (203-208), but the relevant functions are similar in each.

And now we see Attitudes Toward History through a Frazerian screen. Burke, drawing on the study of ritual in The Golden Bough, is conducting an examination of society’s attempts to maintain itself. These attempts are anchored in ritual, and though rituals come and go, there are general characteristics of all ritual that will help us identify and understand them when we see them. And as we understand the forces that hold societies together, we will be able to more effectively participate in the “symbolic tinkering” that keeps collectivism on course. This tinkering is then specifically outlined in the “General Nature of Ritual,” where Burke first makes the argument that ritual will be needed as a corrective even when we have attained our ultimate state of society. This is the case because this is a “disparate world,” and a one-time ascension of collectivism will not change that material fact. As disparate beings, people will tend to wander from the established path, even if that path is the best possible alternative. In general, then, ritual exists as a way of persuading people to continue with or return to their society. Ritual appears in different forms, but as it relates to collectivism, it will appear as literature, as the factional and universal tragedy provide the stabilizing force society requires. In the new collectivist society, it will be poetics, rather than magic, religion, or science, that is responsible for the maintenance of the community structure.

Afterword: Ritual and Rhetoric

Burke did not finish with Frazer in Attitudes Toward History, of course. As late as A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke briefly returns to the subject of ritual as he describes magic as a form of “primitive rhetoric” (43). He is clearly not trying to claim that all rhetoric is magic, nor even that all magic is rhetoric, but his now-famous definition of rhetoric—“a symbolic means of inducing cooperation” (RoM 43)—sounds suspiciously like his description of ritual—“symbolic tinkering . . . [which] guides social purpose” (ATH 179). Later, in The Rhetoric of Religion, he argues that “religion falls under the head of rhetoric . . . [because] religious cosmogonies are designed, in the last analysis, as thoroughgoing modes of persuasion . . . . [that] persuade men toward certain acts . . . [and] form the kinds of attitudes which prepare men for such acts” (v). Burke later equates the rituals of religion, in the form of covenants, with governance and the natural order (RoR, 233). Given, then, that rhetoric is chiefly concerned with “inducing cooperation” and ritual, through activities as disparate as magic, religion, science, and literature, “guides social purpose,” is it possible that all rhetoric is a form of ritual?


1 This is not to say that these uses of ATH have not been interesting or productive. There have, in particular, been several scholars who have used Burke’s conception of comedy and burlesque as an analytical tool (see, for instance, Appel, Carlson, and Bostdorff).

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"Burke, Frazer, and Ritual"

"Burke, Frazer, and Ritual: Attitudes Toward Attitudes" is a well written treatise that, in my view, affords much needed contextualization for ATH, especially for the seemingly dislocative Chapter One, Part III ("The General Nature of Ritual"), that seems to come out of nowhere. Gibson's essay adds significantly, also, to our understanding of the "Magic, Religion, and Science" chapter in P&C. And its background review of Frazer's work and impact on the intellectual milieu of the first half of the twentieth century is helpful in its own right.

One formulation of Gibson's that I'll want to keep in mind is this one: magic (immutability of nature and its processes), leading to religion (assumption of nature's indeterminism, accompanied by prayer and propitiation of nature's Supreme Controller), followed by science (back to immutability, only this time control via physical testing and experiment), and then to Burke's proposal, poetic or literary art (with a reprise on indeterminism). The contemporary ascendancy of an Einsteinian/quantum universe, with its presuppositions of relative, not absolute or objective, truth; an accoustical, not a visual, metaphor in its approach to phenomena; temporal and variable causation, not spatial and material; discontinuous and random process, not a predictable or predeterminable one; a broader emphasis on relationships, not just on discrete facts---this model of the universe and its operations goes appropriately with, I think, Burke's critique of the rigidities of traditional science.

I find intriguing, too, Gibson's final insight, to wit, that Burke's notion of ritual sounds a lot like Burke's definition of rhetoric in general in RM. Gibson asks: "Is it possible that all rhetoric is a form of ritual?" That notion sounds to me like one we could further explore.

I want to get back in a later post to some of the clues Burke offers in this focal chapter of ATH to the "general nature of ritual," and maybe how those features fall within the purview of rhetoric in general. I may, also, point to a few points Gibson makes that might call for further study and clarification.


"Burke, Frazer, and Ritual"

The last seven pages of Burke's chapter (in ATH) on the "General Nature of Ritual" is entitled the "Main Components of Ritual" (pp. 209-215). Performing a cursory cluster analysis in searth of these components, I come up with, perhaps among others, these features:

Ritual of rebirth; symbolic rebirth; ritual as embodying, or memorializing, shifts in perspectives; a shift from, or reaffirmation of, allegiance to the symbols of authority; a new perspective; the "pit" as the place of rebirth; a change of identity; a new perspective; "seeing around the corner" now "prophetically"; criminality; punishment; transcendence.

These ritual elements---hardly a surprise!---look very much like the moments of the generic human drama: criminality, suggesting a morally-disorder scene and guilty agents or actors; punishment by sacrifice, self- or other-directed, as atonement for the arrant transgressions that constitute the criminal; a journey to the edge of an abyss, literal or figurative, as preeminent locus of a dramatic peripety, i.e., symbolic "death" to the old as precursor to rebirth into the new; a wrenching change of perspective, a broader and more insightful understanding, as hard-won redemptive pay day at the end of the struggle, along with an altered and enobled identity. Or, as Burke describes the stages elsewhere: poiema (action), pathema (passion), mathema (understanding).

Thus, the generic human drama as it unfolds in tragedy, at any rate.

Since, from a Burkean slant on the issue, all symbolic action is infused with ethics and drama (recall that it's all rule-governed in one way or another), there will be at least an analogy between rhetoric in the quotidian sense, and ritual as we commonly think of it.

Provocative insight and heuristic query at the conclusion to Gibson's essay!

I do have a question, though, about Gibson's linking of comedy and collectivism. They can go together, of course. Burke would not have espoused both, were that not so. Nevertheless, communist collectivisms of the Stalinist and Maoist varieties were anything but comic. Fundamentalist, procrustean ideologies, infused as they are with the "motive of perfection" (see Burke's equation of Marxist communism and theology in RR), tend to reek of tragic striving (see "Recommending by Tragedy" in P&C [pp. 195-97]). Take capitalism to the "Robber Baron" end-of-the-line, or Marxism to its dogmatic limits, and you will discover, in the ensuing wreckage, wasted populations, resources, and/or landscapes, damaged beyond repair.

I don't quite fathom, either, the notion that Burke's footnote on "factional" and "universal" tragedy (ATH, pp. 188-90) would quite encompass the full range of ritual symbolic action. I know that in the Unitarian Universalist Church, there have been at least three different rituals used as substitutes for the Christian Eucharist: a flower communion, a cider and cornbread communion, and a water communion. In the water communion, congregants bring, or take water from, a separate container and pour the water into a common bowl, signifying a sense of unity and mutual commitment to the aims of the fellowship. In all of these rites, the focus is on affirmation of life and growth, not symbolic death as route into a new existence and identity.

The unifying ends of the factional and universal forms of tragedy Gibson cites are well taken as the common outcomes of ritual action. Rituals can, however, be comic---I'm sure even burlesque, etc.---as well as tragic frame. Else how could "ritual" and "rhetoric" be deemed as two facets of the same phenomenon?