Click here for the original recording in MP3 format.
Transcribed and Edited by Adam Humes and Ethan Sproat
This transcription is part of the ongoing Kenneth Burke Digital Archive (KBDA), which was initially established by a small group of KB scholars at the 2014 KBS conference in St. Louis, "Attitudes Toward Technology/Technology's Attitudes." Apropos to the location of the 2014 KBS conference, this recording and transcription also took place in St. Louis at Washington University at St. Louis (WUSTL). The transcription below is of a discussion between KB and Howard Nemerov, a professor of poetry at WUSTL. Nemerov and KB were good friends and colleagues who had worked together previously at Bennington College. At the time of this recording, KB was a visiting professor at WUSTL. During this recording, Howard Nemerov and KB discuss various aspects of KB's poetry.
This transcription and the MP3 recording above appear here by permission of the Kenneth Burke Literary Trust and in coordination with the Washington University Libraries Department of Special Collections Manuscript Division. In the transcript below, timestamps in parentheses periodically precede shifts from reading to commentary or from speaker to speaker. Speakers' names appear in all caps in bold in brackets. Any portions that were unintelligible to the transcribers and editors are here represented with the word “unintelligible” in bold in brackets. If any readers have any suggested corrections to the text below based on the MP3 recording linked above, please contact Ethan Sproat, the KBDA Lead Archivist, at Ethan.Sproat@uvu.edu.]
[NOTES ON PIANO]
[MALE VOICE 1:] [unintelligible] Club. Our speakers tonight are Kenneth Burke and Howard Nemerov. They tell me they have a game plan, but don't tell me what it is, so I'll leave it to them to show us what it is.
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] Well we've come to improvise, and we trust our powers of it insomuch that we brought our collected works along and are prepared just to sit there and to read to you out of them, maybe antiphonally. This is really Mr. Burke's show, I got kind of added to it the last day or two. So the idea was to see how long I could read something before Kenneth interrupted, because as we have allowed to each other the essence of this good word-man is that he wouldn't let a good explanation go unexplained. If I explain something, we've got to cap it. First, I got a little document that says I'm not gonna get more than three sentences through, but I took the precaution of bringing some other little documents that I didn't show him, as well as an essay about him which he was allowed to read finally on his request when it got to stage of proof. In which he said dourly, "That's very kind of you. Preserved your own independence at the same time, didn't you?" How do you do, Doctor? You'll get your chance. Do you want to go now?
[KENNETH BURKE:] Do you want to sit down?
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] I'll stand up. I'll stand on the table because otherwise I won't have the stature.
[KENNETH BURKE:] Because I have a lot of that.
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] This is on the question, "What is Man?" It's the minutes of the faculty meeting on the subject. I've been noticing that every discipline has a way of undercutting the others to say, "I am the essential where as you guys are kind of peripheral." And this never really got anywhere, but it might set somebody else off. What is man? Who professed through chemistry said that is easily answered, "A handful of chemicals and a lot of water. The whole business maybe a dollar ninety-eight, and that was only on the account of inflation. I remember in Popular Mechanics it was ninety-six cents years ago. "But the organization of all this stuff," said the professor of biology, "gives an impression of being directed and purposive that is quite foreign to the organization of the same chemicals in other relation." "But if you want to know what we are," said the professor of physics, "the fundamental thing to get straight is that we are arrangement of atoms dancing around in mostly void". And here the professor of economics got in: "If people were not paid to talk this stuff," he said, "people would not talk this stuff. Man was essentially an arrangement to ensure the steady circulation of goods and services." The professor of history sighed and said that the really interesting thing about what you were calling "man" was not his opinions about himself, but how he came over the course of millennia to hold the opinions he did. Now the professor of neurophysiology said that he would like to agree with the professor of history, but he said, from a radically different point of view. Now that we understood he said the interior of the brain to contain neither thought more words but only neurons it was truly fascinating to hear a body of learned men continue to talk as though—the professor of philosophy here interrupted to say that in that event his learned colleague in neurophysiology wasn't saying anything he was only clicking his neurons. any resemblance to thought would be recognized as purely coincidental. The professor of linguistic analysis he remarked after [unintelligible] nothing at all, that the really strange thing about man was his propensity to think of the universe and himself as generated according to the rules that generated grammar. In this instance the Indo-European ones. you want to get in there?
[KENNETH BURKE:] I want you to finish your page first
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] Whereupon the professor of English misquoted Samuel Johnson to effect that when the disputes of monarchs were discussed by grammarians they became disputes about grammar. The professor of moral theology pointed out that their question in somewhat fuller form asked by the Psalmist “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” permitted the answer to be inferred rather plainly, not much. The professor of anthropology observed that man was strikingly defined as the animal having gods, no other animal he said did that or anything like it. “One might with equal force contend,” said the university librarian, “that man is the animal who writes books. many of them about what is man. No other animal was known to do that either.” The professor of business administration suggested here that an interdisciplinary committee would be set off—
where upon the professor of political science broke in to say that man was the animal who formed committees. That just because the end of the page
[KENNETH BURKE:] well the reason i was happy to have this beginning was that i had thought i had an answer. My difficult friend here had showed me. And the idea's this: he offered a lot of definitions you see, which my definition would be among those present. Yet I have to find some way of claiming that this is the definition against all the other definitions. And the way I tried to work that out is this: all those definitions, every one of the has one thing in common, therefore we have to move to a higher level of generalization there, and note that all of them are definitions. What does it mean to be this defining animal? No other animal that we know of writes definition of itself. So therefore despite not only the differences among them, these definitions, they're all the use of symbol systems, every one uses some organized symbol system to get its statement made. So therefore, I would say that by that very situation the very internally the embarrassment of the diversity into something on my side by saying therefore we will define man as this symbol using animal. And that will cover the whole blame ground of them. Now given the symbol using animal, he can run committees; he can do all this and that but this would be the overall characterization for the lot. I ran across particularly in my definition of man, which of course I began defining man as the symbol using animal. I remember, by the way, we might keep in mind the overall logic of this discussion which doubtless get lost which we're supposed to be working on, and that is that its the matter of language in general and poetics in particular. In other words, we're going to do, what is it did you say about this whole field, our field, when you just talk about the fact that we are this symbol using animal and what do you say when you're discussing one particular problem in the analysis of the text and so on. We have to keep shifting back and forth. I've found that this has been my problem over about fifty years of teaching and that you just never quite resolved. If you talk to some people are interested say in philosophy and sociology and so on are interested in the notion of approaching this subject for the more general point of view, that would be the government of language in general. And yet when we have our special field where you're dealing with works in particular and I've tried to work out, more or less, a—I wouldn't say heroic—but a viable scheme working back and forth between those two. What would you say about a text purely from a stand point of it as a poem and what would you say about it as a standpoint of a statement of a citizen/taxpayer who has not necessarily fooled at all? in other words, he's using symbol systems. And in my definition of man, which by popular request I will now read to you, I got into this problem in discussing the third clause, where the problem really comes up in the most acute way. If I say, starting out step by step, now man is the symbol using animal and then we'll get our first definition. Then I will say inventor of the negative. We can go onto that if you want to discuss it. I've discussed it in an earlier talk here. That is the notion that the negative is a purely linguistic notion and doesn't exist in nature. The third, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making. That had to do with all these definitions that man is the tool-making animal. It is our ability to make tools that separated us so greatly from what would be in the state of nature. So it was dealing with that particular clause that i ran across the notion some people would say well why not the tool-making animal rather than the symbol using animal. And it was there that I ran into this maybe formalistic answer. That is even defining him as the tool-making animal you still have a higher level of generalization there. In other words, you're already using symbol systems, so let's go from your highest level of generalization for your definition that's about what they [unintelligible] there, no point in going to the next two stages of the definition, I want them to see what the issue is there. In other words, I just invite you to ask about it. I'm not trying to get away with something here. The point is does this sound like a reasonable way to approach a problem like that. Can you, should you, in making a definition, try to arrive at the highest level of generalization at that stage for your definition? Therefore, should this fact, that we are the specialists in symbol using, be the characteristic element? On a basis of that, you can derive our aptitude, a lot of it rather unfortunate, with tool-making. The very fact that you can use symbol systems produces the kind of attention whereby you can actually invent things and particularly, hand on the intention. You can tell somebody else what you've done and so on. Therefore a statement that might be an act of genius under conditions otherwise becomes something where you can make the whole tribe the equivalent of genius in that sense. You can tell them how to sew or how to this or that which with mere imitation they couldn't have done. The quality of attention wouldn't be there without this prior kind of sharpening up you get from being this kind of animal. As we go on, you'll find out that that isn't by any means just an honorific thing, it is also a problematic element. Mainly because the very fact that we do have a way of bringing the non-symbolic or the external reality into ourselves, making a bridge between these two realms, also implies that we have a gulf at the bracing point. In all likelihood it is the basis alienation right there before you get to the kinds of alienation you get in problems of property structures and so on. At that stage, we have a homelessness in relation to nature that an organism presumes he would not have if it did not have this particular genius of ours. When I made this mild neologism, the ability for symbolicity. We will now give our friend a chance here for a while to read.
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] Let me illustrate a point. Louis Mumford has this clever comparison when he's talking about the preeminence of language in making us what we are. He says archeologists and anthropologists tend to go for material artifacts and when they can find some flint axe heads they're pleased. But he said suppose that all the words people used left little dry husks like wing covers around, you wouldn't be able to see a flint axe head because there would be all the husks of those used words around. The moment people discovered they could talk what they must've done for millennia is talk. Great discovery, probably at first the whole damn business didn't mean anything, you just recited enormous long chants which other people had to recite back at you exactly the same way. At least if you define your temperament by saying whether you think people did it that way or whether they first said you are an axe or you are a hammer, you're a river, and stuff like that. I had a definition I wrote for Mr. Mumford after reading his book. I said, "The way people invented language was they got together and talked it over among themselves.”
[KENNETH BURKE:] There's another variation on that. Malinowski has what he calls phatic communion which he spells "p-h-a-t-i-c." Which is just communion by disusing language by speaking back and forth under random conditions. I discovered that he could also work from Latin. So people get together by just sitting around and chewing the fat.
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] My wife has a find definition of a committee meeting: RE: chewing the fat.
[KENNETH BURKE:] You were going to offer a few of your statements of the other business. Do you want to do that way now or no?
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] Alright. We'll see how well planned this is.
[KENNETH BURKE:] I want to say in advance that this is an article that I think is a piece of what this fellow always does. It's a marvelous piece of work. And he keeps you on your toes all the way through. And it's a piece of luck tonight that he's going to—
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] You give me a slice of embarrassment that I keep flattering the hell out of the master who conned me to write a piece about him.
[KENNETH BURKE:] Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I'll move ahead. Here is the way he flatters me. (by Birch Riley)Everything is in movement and development. Everything is always being used for all its worth, and sometimes maybe more. The world's just come to an end just before he got those last four words out there.
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] We thought originally that this might be a way to begin things. If you can take the shameless flattery with which I butter him up. The point being to see how many sentences I got through before he couldn't stand it and started. In one, perhaps accidental, symbolic act Burke expressed his essence. He has some of his early books reissued by Hermes Publications and indeed, it turned out afterwards he said he indeed named the publisher that. Hermes was originally a boundary stone. Just a little rock to show you where your land left off and your neighbor's began. The he grew a face and a beard, as seen in illustrations in classical dictionaries. You haven't got the beard yet, but—
[KENNETH BURKE:] This'll do.
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] Alright. And he went on to become the Roman god of boundaries who was called Terminus. Rising still further, he became Hermes Trismegistus, thrice greatest Hermes who was called that way because he was a king, a priest, and a prophet or legislator all at the same time, all three. “The fabled author,” says Marcoux, “the large number of works called Hermetic books, most of which embody Neo-Platonic, Judaic, and Kabaalistic ideas as well as magical, astrological, and alchemical doctrines.” In other words, everything, preferably all at once. And the dictionary from which I got this description of Burke in his aspect as Hermes identifies him as Socrates does, too in the Pheadras with the Egyptians scribe Thoth. Who had the head of an ape, I believe. Who, above all, says created by means of words. And appears, sometimes, as exercising this function on his own initiative. At other times acting as instrument of his creator. You wanna jump now or you wanna wait a little?
[KENNETH BURKE:] Nah. I can wait.
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] That is a doubt one may properly have about any scribe whose work is imposing enough to make you wonder whether he is representing the world or proposing to replace it. Something I always worried about with respect to John Milton. Put some of my colleagues through some of my experiences with John Milton last term. They were all telling me as soon as i got on to it, I would love it. I finally got back at them by explaining that they had never told me I was reading the English translation. But Milton, for instance, said when he invokes his heavenly muse, claims to merit the instruction by reason of his upright heart and pure. And yet, though it's obvious what is intended is humility, i always heard a certain obstinacy when he said "upright heart and pure," and thought of it as comparable with another of his epithets erected. Well, the doubt may be peculiarly appropriate to a philosopher who creates by means of words and the special sense that he creates words or takes over words, termed, terminologies, the business of Hermes: to set limits. The business of the philosopher, as Socrates defined it most tersely in the Phaedrus where he says, "I guess your way of translation is merger and division." Separating things out or putting things together. When the further inference to be drawn is that there is a way of doing this that is right. The anecdote is very wide-spread. Aristotle has it, too, and it's in some Chinese document I read about the Emperor's Butcher who was so good he didn't need a knife. He just divided things with his hand because he divided them where nature divided them. Then you don't need a sharp edge, it will just fall apart on you because that is right. Well, when you ask whether Mr. Burke does what he does on his own initiative or the instrument of his creator you get somewhat cryptic, though certainly comprehensive reply from his address to the logos where he ends, “For us,/A Great Synecdoche, /Thy works a great tautology.” I think I'll let you explain about synecdoche and tautology all you want from therein.
[KENNETH BURKE:] Yeah, that was a point that I used that in a poem of mine where the whole idea was to work up to those two unwieldy words at the end. Having used the poem several times in readings, I learnt by trial and error that the best way to approach that is first explain how using these two words indicated tautology. explain it along these lines: you have to begin by softening a blow; by synecdoche I here meant a part for the whole and by tautology I had in mind the dialectic fact that the if all creation is the work of the original creative word. What I'm doing here is following the step in theology and God said that there was. That is the creative fiat, which is the creative word. My whole method of working is to try to work from theology without any reference to the truth or falsity of it. But the standpoint of morphology. In other words that I can find statements about God that can be interpreted as statements about words can be used analogically in that way. And that's where the whole problem turns up here about this whole notion of the creative word. You do have a way in which this principle which is used one way in theology as God said let there be and there was and the way that same thing develops in language when you set up a particular set of terms. In terms of which you see something as far as people do see it in those terms you have created that weltanschauung, that view of the world for them. That would be the analogy. So what I did there, the actual poem, maybe I might read the poem because it would give you some general idea of the approach that I work with and this whole idea of the word. this poem is written in a quasi-pious way, but I'm just technically dealing with this problem of the logos, the creative word, and basically this whole idea of the symbol using animal. I might bring out one possible misunderstanding I find people often have about my work, and that is when I speak of the—although I think that for my particular field, the word is the primary area of symbolism that I must deal with. I don't by any means reduce the field to that. I think that dance, painting, music, they're all symbol systems; every one involves the same element. People sometimes have a feeling that there's a fundamental difference between words and these other kinds of symbols. I think we are the kind of animal that approaches the world through all kinds of symbol systems and not all of them just verbal at all. But your logos principle is a good summary for that whole idea. Particularly since in Greek, logos itself has a much wider than just word. It is the whole idea of reason and seeing things in terms of principle. I might suggest as to do with this whole pattern of moving to higher levels and lower levels of generalization which underlies our whole discussion of language in general and poetics in particular. I might read the whole thing. When I get to these last two word, you'll have that which is the only unwieldy words in the whole scheme. Just a little Plutonic dialectic here and you work up to the grand synecdoche as the notion of the part for the whole. And is that name, the great synecdoche, it is just one fragment standing for the whole of the world. and the work's a grand tautology. The idea there is that if the same principle is embodied throughout a work, then it's tautological. It's repetitious in the sense that it will be everywhere. So it carried that out in the standpoint of theology. If the whole universe is a creation of God, then of course God would be manifest in some way or other in every one of its parts. And you get the analogy of that, moving into what I call a step from theology to logology, where you say if you infuse a certain structure with a certain terminology, then of course the whole structure will partake of that one genius and therefore, in that sense, will be tautological. You'll be saying the same thing everywhere you turn.
Hail to Thee, Logos,
Thou Vast Almighty Title,
In Whose name we conjure—
Our acts the partial representatives
Of Thy whole act.
May we be Thy delegates
In parliament assembled.
Parts of Thy wholeness.
And in our conflicts
Correcting one another.
By study of our errors
May we give true voice
To the statements of Thy creatures.
May our spoken words speak for them,
That we know precisely their rejoinders
To our utterances,
And so my correct our utterances
In the light of those rejoinders.
Thus may we help Thine objects
To say their say—
No suppressing by dictatorial lie,
Not giving false reports
That misrepresent their saying.
If the soil is carried off by flood,
May we help the soil to say so.
If our ways of living
Violate the needs of nerve and muscle,
May we find the speech for nerve and muscle,
To frame objections
Whereat we, listening,
Can remake our habits.
May we not bear false witness to ourselves
About our neighbors,
Why they did as they did.
May we compete with one another,
To speak for Thy Creation with more justice—
Cooperating in this competition
Until our naming
Gives voice correctly.
And how things are
And how we say things are
Let the Word be dialectic with the Way—
Whichever the print
The other the imprint.
Above the single speeches
Erecting a speech-of-speeches—
And above this
And so on,
Until all is headed
In Thy Vast Almighty Title,
What in Thy work is drawn our explicitly—
In its plenitude.
And may we have neither the mania of the One
Nor the delirium of the Many—
But both the Union and the Diversity—
The Title and the manifold details that arise
As that Title is restated
In the narrative of History.
Not forgetting that the Title represents the story's Sequence,
And that the Sequence represents the Power entitled.
Thy name a Great Synecdoche,
Thy works a Grand Tautology.
Summing it up that way. There's one thing I might bring in there at that point because I think it's another thing that's going to underlie, I found this misunderstanding that underlies my whole relation to the word and the theory of the word. In a new edition of an earlier book of mine, Philosophy of literary form, I added this notion. It should be brought out to make this clear. I take it that the symbolically tinged realms of power, act, and order—those are the three great schemes or terms that I think have a great set of terminology that develops from a concept of the act, a great terminology that develops from the concept of order, and you have a terminology that develops from the concept of power. They overlap somewhat, but they're all grounded in the realm of motion so far as umbilical existence is concerned. And this realm is non-symbolic, as motion is not in itself an example of symbolic action. It's a symbolic act for a physicist to write about motion or to work out various schemes for analyzing motion and for making things move and so on. But motion itself is completely outside the realm of symbolism. if you don't get that, I'd wish you'd bring it up in discussion period. If you want, we can bring it up because it is a very important point about the whole thing I'm after. And this realm is non-symbolic, except in the sense that man, as the symbol-using animal, necessarily endows everything with a spirit of his symbol systems. I found it necessary to emphasize this point, because, over the years, my constant concern with symbolicity has often been interpreted in the spirit exactly contrary with my notions of reality. The greater my stress upon the roll of symbolism in human behavior and misbehavior, the greater has been my realization of the inexorable fact that in regards to the realm of empirical, one cannot live by the word-bread alone. And though the thing-bread is tinged by the symbolic action, in the sense that we have a name for it, its empirical nature is grounded in the realm of non-symbolic or extra-symbolic motion. In other words, bread makes possible certain weird digestive processes here in the body and motion in that sense?. There is a basic difference between metaphysical idealism and my concern with the word. You see, you can't talk about anything except by exemplifying the rules of talk is not identical with saying our world is nothing but the things we say about it. On the contrary, alas, there's been many a time when what we call a food should have been called a poison. And if our ancestors had but hit upon too many of such misnomers, we'd not be here now. My whole feeling is that the more you study this realm of symbolic action, of the terrific range of things that we do through being a symbol-using animal, the more you realize the last analysis, that the answers are in the realm of the non-symbolic. I think that's really the way this ties in with all these people who are worrying about ecology and so on. You can go on and sell yourself this idea or that idea, but if it's poison, it's poison no matter what you call it. And that's the way it will work out. I think that this the whole environmentalist emphasis that's coming up now just fits completely into the attitude that I have here, where you watch the comedy of human word-using. And you see it on the edges of the terrific tragedy when you do get this misnaming. Ultimately, it leads you to a little vision of crossing the jumping off place where you just realize that words be damned. The last analysis we live or die just as bodies. And that's exactly what we're facing in this whole issue now. We can go on and blow horn about doing this or that, but there is the final test. Are our names accurate or are they not? Insofar as they're accurate, they give us a chance to pull out of this thing. Insofar as they're not, we're down the drain. But the question is ultimately in realm when I mean the realm of sheer motion. Is the body being poisoned or is it not? no matter what they call it; they can call it food, they can call it the future. Is it being poisoned or not? Are we destroying our rivers or are we not? That is the element. That is what I mean by this whole feeling of the marvels of symbolism. Every single symbolic structure, every act of genius, every great drama, every great novel, and so on. there you see all this tremendous scope and mystery and genius of these works. And yet in the last analysis are these bodies being taken care of or not. And that is what I mean. That is purely in the realm of motion, not action. Now, the motion category looks like action, but that be so much in the use of the symbol-using animal, we endow nearly everything in the world with a symbolic content. But that's not intrinsic to the material itself. that's just the way we approach it, but that's the particular kind of animal that we are. You're allowed to go on, friend, if you get a chance.
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] Is there some place to go? I understand that you must've bet on a bad physicist or something if you're protesting so much about believing in motion. In that same book of philosophy of literary form, you divided language up in uses as dream, prayer, and chart. I suppose what you mean is you mustn't contradict the chart so hard it kills you by dreaming or praying things that just aren't in the situation. That relation's a fascinating one. Christopher Caudwell says about the tribes that do the rain dance, says, “They do it just before the rainy season and they don't do it in the dry season.” And as I think this guy's somewhere said, “With our technology, we tend to think of other civilizations' primitive people as inferior. And yet, the odd thing is that turning it around. How much nature allows for. It won't kill you off, there's many mistakes that don't kill you.” Your chart can be wildly astray and full of psychotic influences. These people just go on living in the same manner. Whereas our beautiful notions have brought us quite close to the apocalypse. While we are saying that people thought as the year 1000 approached, they thought that the destruction of the world was immanent. and weren't they superstitious to think that? Now, as the year 2000 approaches, we think, "Well, it's quite reasonable. We're allowing the extra thirty odd years for the round numbers sake. The whole thing might blow up in our faces, then or before then." Of course there's a nice relation there because you can't expect the millennium until you have a calendar. And there you get your symbolism coming in.
[KENNETH BURKE:] Well I guess that little analogy fits in there with that part this way, too. You take the absolute absurdity of the world we're in. You give somebody a couple of dollars and they can go into a supermarket and buy some food. He feels himself so confounded superior to a primitive tribe that can make a living in the wilderness. And this ass couldn't do anything.
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] That includes us, too.
[KENNETH BURKE:] I use that example is like a guy getting delusions of grandeur when every time he walks into the supermarket, the doors open of themselves. It's like, "I did that!"
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] I made up one couplet that I beg leave to intrude on this situation and thus to destroy everything. I came on with lots of couplets, just in case. This is called "Creation Myth." I've got one that's shorter than his, you see. It's on the idea of moebius band, where you can go from inside to outside without crossing an edge and back again. It says:
This world's just mad enough to have been made
by the Being His being into Being prayed.
You can have a copy and play and wrap around. Not the sort of thing you want to tell anybody. Time's for questions from the floor, I dare say.
[KENNETH BURKE:] It might be a good chance to let someone come in at this stage. Start from the other end. We can go on if we have to. Glad to get someone from the other end. That's what we're all here for. We're made to pop up. You want to say anything? Yes?
[AUDIENCE MEMBER 1:] I wish you'd to go back to the beginning and explain the relation between symbols and alienation?
[KENNETH BURKE:] Between symbols and what please?
[AUDIENCE MEMBER 1:] Alienation.
[KENNETH BURKE:] Alienation? Oh. What I was getting at there, I was saying that after you get a highly developed property structure, you can get alienation simply because of the fact that they property structure is out of align with the needs of the situation. The rational structure no longer seem rational to them. Whenever you've lost a sense of rationality to that extent you're confronting a feeling of alienation. What I was getting at is that I think that the beginning of alienation are further back. The very fact that we can develop all this elaborate departure from mere conditions of living are involved in this thing that I'm talking about. That by the very fact that we spontaneously approach everything from a standpoint of a symbolic film that is between us and those things. You might put it in this way and the simplest way in my own field: maybe you don't have a name for everything, but you think of everything as nameable. You could if you knew enough, you'd have a name for it. We just approach everything from the stand point of nameability. Go ahead.
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] Here's a nice illustration that Burke had of the difference that I thought is definitive. Notice, one corner of the world is a hurricane and the newspapers report it. Buildings are blown down, lives are lost, crops are destroyed, land is inundated. And the newspapers said, "It is estimated that there'd been five million dollars worth of damage." Five million dollars lost. He says, "Next day, the stock market goes down and it is estimated that the losses total five million dollars." Now you can see that one set of losses is what you'd call natural or real. The other has something to do with a symbol system. People hadn't lost things in exactly the way that they did in the hurricane.
[KENNETH BURKE:] Yeah, to carry that out a little further, I actually saw once after a big hurricane that went through New England and I saw an article on the financial page of the New York Times where this man writing there talked about the losses due to that hurricane up there through New England. It was some terrific number, billions of dollars, and this fellow says, "After all, that's just about what we lost in the market slump of 1929." When the market slumped in 1929, every single piece of property was there, there was no loss at all, you see, from this standpoint of this real realm. The losses were purely symbolic. Just all these twists in ownership and so on. And yet every single thing was there. And people so spontaneously think in symbolic terms in our system that they can't discount things like that. This is the great lie. This is the great deception between us and the state of nature. Yes?
[AUDIENCE MEMBER 2:] Then what is the link, then, between those consequences which were very real and not symbolic of the stock market crash? How do you get from the symbolic loss to the very real consequences?
[KENNETH BURKE:] the fact is that so far as the place was not destroyed, you had the actual reality of the conditions. In other words, you still had all the resources there and that's where people could go on living. They had to do new tricks of symbolism versus the government bailing out the people who were in debt, bail them out if they had big enough debt. If they had little debts, they weren't bailed out. they could take sell apples, but if anybody, really a big railroad or something, was in trouble, got bailed out. And just the way the fence set, really. The conditions are the same, but you have all these resources, all the symbolic manipulations. Because the whole monetary structure is, of course, an example of symbolism.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER 2:] This is a good instance of alienation, right?
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] Here's an illustration for a change that's not from you, but it's funny. Sherman Arnold has a book called The Folklore of Capitalism, which used to be very popular and still worth looking at. It was written on the basis of that depression. He said, "You’d think that anybody'd know the difference between a horse and a duck. But," he says, "suppose a situation where ducks are taxable and horses aren't. Then you will find people bringing their ducks out of the barnyard and putting bridles on them and saddles. Walking them around and proclaiming that it is obvious to anyone that this animal has been a horse from all eternity."
[KENNETH BURKE:] That, of course, is the marvelous way in which that comes to a focus and leads to alienation is when the corporation is made a person. When we set up the constitution, there were no such things as corporations. The word doesn't appear. It was much later that all these rights were guaranteed to the person, in the individual human sense, were transferred to a legal person. And when you transfer them to a legal person you get a whole new bag of tricks which don't even have anything to do with the reality of the situation. I know personally a man who divided himself into two corporations. And he had the most marvelous method. He was a publisher. He would make a deal with a writer and would give them a very tempting contract. Little clauses in the contract said he could—under uncertain, not too clearly specified conditions—sell the rights to another corporation. If he did so, there were changes in the schedule of royalties and so on. He was both corporations! He signed up this handsome contract with a chap as one corporation and sold it to himself as the other corporation. And there went the royalties down the drain, just by using this symbolic action device. This is one of the resources of symbolic usage. You can see how naturally it makes for alienation. Your turn, Howard. Unless somebody wants to say something. Here's somebody.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER 3:] I wonder if you'd care to comment on your conception of man's symbolizing ability as a source of his alienation in relation of say, Ernst Cassirer on that same idea. Do you find Cassirer to be someone important to you way of thinking?
[KENNETH BURKE:] The only basic place where I would deviate from Cassirer and his idea of the symbolicum is that the whole post-Kantian line—see, I make a distinction of this. I start this theory of symbolic action, I thinks of primariliy starting from an idea of language, not primarily as a field of knowledge, but primarily as a field of action. I view this as a kind of instrumentality that was developed by a tribes' modes of cooperation and competition. In other words, it was essentially ways of persuasion and dissuasion. Getting people to help you on this enterprise, and away from that enterprise. Don't do this, do that. But basically, of that sort. The Kantian line is what I would call dramatistic because the essence of it is an action. That's the same of my whole theory of poetics, also. Because in that whole scholastic line, act and form were equated. Act equals form, and of course if you start to work with pieces of literature and poetry and so on, the first thing you're doing is asking about form. How does it go from here to here? Rather than asking if it's true or false. I don't think truth or falsity is the main test. I think that verisimilitude is a much more relevant test than truth in that particular realm. Sometimes the very fact that something is true will help it to have verisimilitude, but it doesn't necessarily have to work that way. But your Kantian line, which Cassirer is in, is a grand line and I think that Kant's "Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics" is one of the basic books. But it starts from a problem of knowledge, rather than this question of action. And to that extent, I would call it scientistic rather than dramatistic. The way that turns up in the history of the subject starts in epistemology, which is actually the question of knowledge. And I think that this whole line has this epistemological emphasis. Which is to me from the standpoint of the kind of problems that I have to deal with primarily matters of form and dramas and so on. It's a round about way of getting at the subject. I first have to ask myself, "What's going on here? How are you leading, pointing the arrows? How are you getting people to expect this and be gratified by that? And want this character to get bumped off and want this character to be saved?" and things like that. You got a whole group of dynamic questions developed that way, you see where we're going. If you start from the knowledge end, I think you do a better job. You’re much more direct there than if you're just dealing with the scientific nomenclatures primarily. This scheme starts with poetic problems, not scientific problems. Now, it becomes scientific in the sense that anything you say insofar as what you say is accurate, it's a contribution to knowledge. It's the question of where do you go into it. How do you get into that whole subject.
[HOWARD NEMEROV:] I think we ought to cut down to what we agreed was your [unintelligible]. I could introduce it with something that occurred to me: that poetry is like an eccentric filing system.
[KENNETH BURKE:] Since the time is up, I have what i was telling my friend, Howard Nemerov, this is a particularly a good poem to end on, after you've been in a conference for three days. I've found then that it almost goes over extremely well. But maybe an hour will be good enough to do that. It's called "I'm Putting Things in Order"
File this, throw out that.
Alert the secretariat
Idre each claim and caveat
To better serve the cause of alphabet
Throw out this, file that
File this, throw that out.
We know beyond all doubt
How perfect order reconciles
And now, throw out the files.
Now, let's go home.
[CROWD NOISES WITH KB HUMMING TO HIMSELF AND SHUFFLING PAPERS]