[KB] McGee and Burke

Clarke Rountree rountrj at uah.edu
Thu Dec 11 11:52:32 EST 2014

Dear Burkeans:

I recently returned to reread Michael Calvin McGee's "Ideograph" essay and
confronted, once again, his opening claim: "In 1950, Kenneth Burke,
apparently following Dewey, Mead, and Lippmann, announced his preference
for the notion 'philosophy of myth' to explain the phenomenon of 'public'
or 'mass consciousness' rather than the then-prevalent concept 'ideology."
(1). I always chafed at this interpretation of Burke's section in *RM *on
"'Sociology of Knowledge' v. Platonic 'Myth'" (197-203). Admittedly, Burke
does refer to Marxist ideology (and all ideologies) as "partial" (though he
does hint at "ultimate" elements in Marxism's merging of the logical and
the temporal in dialectical materialism's "principled" account of
inevitable historical development and the participatory role of the
proletariat). However, I never saw this particular application of positive,
dialectical, and ultimate terms to Mannheim as expressing Burke's ultimate
"preference" for myth in accounting for mass consciousness. Indeed, I
assume that Burke would admit that much of what we experience in that form
is a sort of "partial" understanding of the world got by our ideological

On the other hand, Burke does seem intrigued by the insights afforded by
not simply mythic thinking, but a developmental (or experiential?)
understanding of myth: "Only by going from *sensory *images to ideas, then
through ideas to the end of ideas, is one free to come upon the
*mythic *image...
And the *disciplined arrival at the mythic image through the dialectical
transcending of sensory images and the dialectical critique of ideas*,
should be a protection against a merely literal interpretation of such a
mythic image.... [If one interpreted a myth] as *figuring a motive beyond
the reach of ideology*, the motive of the myth would be felt to *lie beyond
the motivational order treated in the competing ideologies. *its motive
would be 'ultimate' as the motives of the ideologies were not" (202).

Am I correct in assuming, contrary to McGee's claim, that this section does
not represent Burke's final (or ultimate) word on mass consciousness or on
a "public"? What should we conclude about Burke's enchantment with the
mythic frame that results from this dialectical development?

(BTW, McGee was one of my professors at U of Iowa, so I got to chafe about
this in person, though I never got a satisfactory response beyond being
advised to read Burke more carefully.)

I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday!


Dr. Clarke Rountree
Chair and Professor of Communication Arts
342 Morton Hall
University of Alabama in Huntsville
Huntsville, AL  35899
clarke.rountree at uah.edu
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