[KB] Burke, Deacon, and Theology

Edward C Appel edwardcappel at frontier.com
Thu Mar 5 15:52:57 EST 2015


	I’ve posted at length here on intersections between Burke and Terrence W. Deacon, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Cal Berkeley, you may recall.  (Of equal importance, Deacon is a neuroscientist, as well.)  In response to a recent e-mail of mine on his aptly described “tour de force,” Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (Norton, 2012, 2013), Professor Deacon kindly sent me additional materials of his: two more of his published articles, bringing my cache to seven in toto; and several series of exceedingly well wrought powerpoint frames and other visuals he has used in lectures at the University of Oslo in Norway, in Holland, the Ginn Lectures in Atlanta, and a couple of presentations to theologians.

	As some of you will likely suspect, the theology theme immediately piqued my interest.  Here we have, it seemed to me, another important point of convergence between Burke and Deacon, adding to the considerable list I’ve already outlined.   The focal reference here will be to Deacon’s coauthored article (with Tyrone Cashman), “The Role of Symbolic Capacity in the Origins of Religion,” Journal of Religion, Nature & Culture, 2009, Vol. 3 No. 4, pp. 490-517.

	I want to begin, in this post, with my take on Burke’s anfractuous relationship to theology, then in a subsequent edition, summarize Deacon’s position.

	Burke, we know, claimed publicly that his interest in theology was entirely secular.  “Logology,” the late-Burke title for his philosophy looked at as an “epistemology,” was solely about the contours of symbolic action, its motives and tendentious operations, not about any putatively transcendental reality.  Logology was the “systematic study of theological terms for the light they might throw on the forms of language,” theological terms being the most thoroughgoing, far-reaching, ultimate terms in language,” language, in Burke’s pat phrase, taken to “the end of the line.”  Tim Crusius doubled down on Burke’s affirmation in Kenneth Burke and the Conversation After Philosophy (Southern Illinois UP, 1999), and in his review of Greig Henderson’s book,  Kenneth Burke: Literature and Language as Symbolic Action, in QJS 76 (1990), pp. 340-342.
	Add to Burke’s official position on logology (was it, or was it not, something of a façade that a cluster/agon analysis can maneuver around?---I ask, and have asked) Burke’s private claim to have been a nontheist.  Wayne Booth  (“Wax ‘N Wayne,” as Burke would call him privately) was a frequent correspondent of KB’s.  In his chapter, “Kenneth Burke’s Religious Rhetoric: ‘God-Terms’ and the Ontological Proof,” in Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry (Yale UP, 2000, pp. 25-46), Booth takes note of Burke’s demurrer.  (See, also, “The Many Voices of Kenneth Burke, Theologian and Prophet, as Revealed in His Letters to Me,” in Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke, Eds. Henderson and Williams [Southern Illinois UP, 2001, pp. 179-201], where Booth offers a second reprise on his 1996 plenary address at the Duquesne Conference, i.e., the Third Triennial.)

	On his actual belief or nonbelief, I think we have to take Burke at his word.  Let’s assume he was the nontheist he told people he was.

	That having been said, Burke’s demonstrable theological obsession cannot be gainsaid.  In Literature and Language (1988), Henderson looked behind the curtain: “For Burke logology is in some sense a surrogate theology.”  Greig added, “The analogies he makes for heuristic purposes betray a psychological need for a sense of permanence akin to a religious faith in the curative power of the word made flesh” (p. 105).  That same year, at ECA (April 29), Trevor Melia speculated about “what kind of Christian” Burke was, suggested that the label “secular Christian” can only be a starting point, and concluded that Burke was at least “up to his ears in Christianity.”

	At length, I had already corresponded with Burke on the matter (late 1983, early 1984), my case, “Kenneth Burke: Coy Theologian,” later published in the Journal of Communication and Religion (September, 1993).  Burke had even allowed at the Philadelphia Conference (March,1984) that I had made a “powerful argument” that he was a theologian.  I got that news from Herb Simons, who was present at the after-hours discussion several key scholars had had with Burke after the first day’s seminars.

	Other names that can be added to these speculations about Burke and religion include, as per Booth in that Yale publication, Burks, Carter, Duerden, Durham, Freccero, Gunn, Gusfield, and Jay.  And I can add Richard Thames and Steven Mailloux to their number (Steve’s paper at the Ghent Conference: “Under the Sign of Theology: Kenneth Burke on Language and the Supernatural Order.")
	I won’t lay out my entire case on Burke as “coy theologian.”  But I’ll highlight a few central points:

	The bottom line in my correspondence with KB, and in my journal piece, was this: It doesn’t matter what Burke personally believed or did not believe.  When a theorist posits that symbolizers are inherently “theotropic”---I’m borrowing a term from Steve here---that theorist is at least a “generic” theologian.  A “lure” in rhetoric, whether in “error” or not, strongly nudges homo loquax “Upward” not only toward a “god term” in general, but also toward the most “perfectly” satisfying God-term of all (GM, pp. 306; RM, pp. 275-76, 290-91; RR).
	And especially when it can be related to extant or historic theological systems, that generic theology takes on some kind of shape, affords a bit of implicit commentary this ubiquitous attribute.  I’ve characterized Burke’s dramatism/logology as a quasi-gnostic (a radical sense of a “Fall” into language, not into a lustful body) universalism (the quest for a “god-term” that unites all of humanity, and a focal program aimed at “purifying” conflict and “war”), friendly to Whitehead’s process theology (with its dialectics, de-perfecting of the Godhead, and rejection of a life after death; note what Burke said in the movie shown at Airlie House, 1993).

	Add to these pillars of support what I would conceive as Burke’s occasional drift into theological principles in the paradigm sense, i.e., statements that have to do with, or surely adumbrate, the actual existence of a Divine Essence of a kind.  When Burke says the “extrahuman ground” out of which humans proceeded “contains the principle of personality, quite as it contains the principle of verbalizing,” that this “’nonverbal’ ground must have contained the ‘potentiality’ of the verbal, otherwise the verbal could not have emerged from it,” Burke has crossed the line, I would suggest, into theology or religion proper (RM, pp. 289-90).
	An analogous proposition is found in the Calabi-Yau version of string theory via the “anthropic principle,” the “notion that the observed laws of nature must be consistent with the presence of intelligent life and, specifically, the presence of intelligent observers like us.  Put in other terms, the universe looks the way it does because if conditions were even slightly different, life would not have formed and humans would not be around to observe it” (Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis, The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions , Basic Books, 2010, p. 345).
	Analogous, also, as I see it, is this quotation highlighted in one of Deacon’s two Ginn Lectures: “We need an understanding of nature such that it is not absurd to say that it has us as its products,” by Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine and the physicist Victor J. Stenger.  (“Naturalizing Teleology: The Redemption of Science by the Rediscovery of Self and Value,” Deacon, 2014.)

        Illustrative of what different observers will “see” in a given statement, question, lacuna, or phenomenon, Stenger was one of the “new atheists,” author of God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does not Exist, 2007.  Stenger, former blogger for the Huffington Post, famously said, “Science flies you to the moon.  Religion flies you into buildings.”  One could just as “truthfully” say, “Religion prepares meals, low cost or free, for the elderly and needy in Lancaster Country, Pennsylvania, and in other communities across the world.  The likes of godless communism and Nazism kills a hundred million persons, give or take a few tens of millions, in quest of a ‘heaven’ on earth.”

	As Burke says, symbols unite and divide, select in and select out, induce attention toward and induce attention away from.  Pick the blinkered lenses of your choice.  They’re all free!

	So, later, an examination of the case for the ubiquity of religion Deacon and Cashman make in the article that concludes: “We speculate that something like a religious predisposition, in the most general sense of the term, should be considered a universal consequence of the symbolic capacity evolving, whether here on earth, or in any other context where symbolic cognition might arise.”


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