Resisting Community with Burke and McKeon: Rhetoric and Poetic in Their 1970 Debate

James Beasley, University of North Florida


In 1970, Burke and McKeon held a debate at the University of Chicago, with the topic the difference between “Rhetoric” and Poetic.” This debate has never before been published, and Bob Wess and I present this debate with the following notes. We begin with our own interest in the debate, follow this with a brief outline of the debate, and then we make some observations about the significance of this debate for rhetorical scholarship today.

The transcript of the debates is embedded in this article as two separate PDF files (see below).

Kenneth Burke taught at the University of Chicago two different times, once in the summer of 1938, and in the fall of 1949. Liz Weiser has brilliantly detailed Burke’s 1938 relationship with Chicago in her excellent article, the title of which comes from Burke’s own admission of where he felt he belonged at Chicago: “Once More I Fell on the Bias.” I have written in several places about Burke’s 1949 lectureship at Chicago, and to connect a bit to David’s paper just now, I’ve always asked the question whether Burke considered himself a member of the Chicago Community? Yes, since of any other university faculty he was a member of, he disagreed with them the loudest. However, If Burke’s disagreement is a characteristic of community, then would the opposite also be true? Would the lack of conflict with the Chicago circle indicate when he didn’t feel he was a part of that community?

On November 13, 1970, Kenneth Burke returned to Chicago for a debate with Richard McKeon. The topic of this debate was the difference between “Rhetoric” and Poetic.” As a true logomachy in real time, this debate reveals much about Burke's understanding of conflict and community. For Burke, conflict was predicated on being part of a member of a community that sought identification, even as its divisions were simultaneously being multiplied. Conflict is the agency that is able to find identifications where only divisions were perceived. By examining when Kenneth Burke initiates conflict in the transcript of this 1970 debate, it is possible to understand how Burke saw himself as part of the community of scholars at the University of Chicago. But by also examining when he avoids conflict in this debate, it is possible to understand how Burke attempts to distance himself from this Chicago community. 

Before I discuss the specific characteristics of their 1970 debate, I’d like to give a little background on the history between Burke and McKeon. I’ve already mentioned Liz Weiser’s work on Burke’s lectureship in 1938, but also Ann George and Jack Selzer detail Burke and McKeon’s early friendship at Columbia in their work, Burke in the 30’s. If we take as our premise that for Burke, conflict meant community, what I would like to do is to focus on moments of conflict in their early relationship that suggest close friendship. This is to provide a baseline of sorts, for if we can identify moments of conflict that demonstrate community, then when we turn to their 1970 debate, we can identify moments that demonstrate how Burke felt he was not part of McKeon’s community.

Burke’s invitation to Chicago is most comprehensively told in Selzer and George’s Burke in the 1930’s and Robert Wess’s “Burke’s McKeon Side.” Both of these histories take as their major claim that Burke was influenced by McKeon and the Chicago circles and both recover Burkean theory within those moments of connection and discussion. However, it can just as easily be  demonstrated that McKeon not only took much from Burke but in many ways considered Burke his audience for his landmark 1942 article, “Rhetoric in the Middle Ages.” For instance, McKeon describes the confusion over rhetoric during the middle ages as "the tradition of “logic which passed as ‘Aristotelian’ yet which followed Aristotle only in the treatment of terms and propositions, and Cicero in the treatment of definitions and principles (4). Furthermore, in McKeon’s correspondence with Burke, McKeon sharpens his hierarchical attitude toward Aristotelian demonstration. While both Selzer and George and Wess’s histories utilize the letters exchanged between McKeon and Burke as evidence of their spheres of influence, these letters also demonstrate the extent to which McKeon was willing to demonstrate his Aristotelian attitude at the expense of Burke. In other words, Neo-Aristotelianism changed McKeon’s orientation to authority. It was not only a critical stance towards literature, but a critical stance towards others. In a response to McKeon on August 27, 1939, Burke writes the following:

Finally sent some stuff off to Crane, but I fear, very belatedly. The point was that, after getting started on the Coleridge material, I had to lay it aside in preparation for some lectures at Syracuse. And since they seemed to go well, on my return I wrote them up (borrowing the magic synecdoche, I mean title, “Psychology of Literary Form,” in which I not only summarized my perspective, but also did a lot in the “what to look for, how, when, where, and why” mode, on the basis of said perspective, with the whole focused on matters of literary analysis). It is now being typed—and begad I’d like to burden you with it, on the grounds that, since the hero is a function of the villain and the villain a function of the hero, one should choose only the best of opponents (“judge a man by the enemies he keeps”)—and so, in self-flattery I keep worrying about them as has been ordained by Aristotle (Burke to McKeon).

Both Burke and McKeon began the twentieth century debating the importance and effects of universals and particulars, and they were still squabbling about universals and particulars into the latter half of the twentieth century. Wess writes, “One record of a face-to-face encounter survives in the form of an unpublished transcript. At the University of Chicago in 1970, Burke and McKeon engaged in a debate, moderated by Wayne Booth, which centered mainly on how to draw a theoretical line between rhetorical and poetic analysis” (54).
At this time, we would like to give a brief overview of the structure of the debate and its transcript. The transcript of the debate is 39 pages total, however, the last 15 pages are from the question and answer period.

1. Introduction/Exigence: pgs. 1-2

Wayne Booth moderates, but after his brief introduction, McKeon takes over and acts as the moderator until near the end, where Booth helps to bring the event to an end. This procedural hiccup directly connects to McKeon and Burke's respective attitudes toward hierarchy, given their critical commitments. It also connects to Booth's role as "mediator" between them, a role that he believed he had.  In the introductory remarks, McKeon says of Burke, "This is merely his dramatistic way of misinterpreting..." (top of page 2). This seems tongue and cheek to me, winking at the notion that "dramatistic" and "misinterpretation" are in close proximity. McKeon says about Burke’s arguing that "I would resent being treated as a scholar...and Burke would always resent my treating him like a poet" (2). While I think McKeon really did resent that, I'm not sure that Burke would have. The point here, though, seems to be that it is McKeon that addresses how they feel they are being treated by one another, while Burke does not.

2. Background: pgs. 3-4

Burke says that "Some of my colleagues would object to me because I didn't analyze one work in particular" (3). This seems familiar in "The Problem of the Intrinsic" and his discussion of the Chicago School, and it might be that Burke is being ironic in this place.

3. McKeon and Burke on the problem of rhetoric and poetic: pgs. 5-6

In this section, McKeon discusses how the difference in rhetoric and poetic. While doing so, McKeon says, "among other things we discovered Aristotle" (bottom of 5). I laughed out loud the first time I read this, since McKeon himself was quite an Aristotelian before he came to Chicago. No doubt he brought Aristotle to the School, but there is perhaps a sense in which the School did discover Aristotle. Aristotle became important for Crane after he ran into McKeon, for example, not before, and this speaks to McKeon’s authoritative attitude that his Neo-Aristotelianism would value.

4. McKeon and Burke on particulars and universals: pgs. 6-10

McKeon interrupts Burke on page eight, "This is the point where I have to explain what you're saying" (8). Burke has just spent a couple pages talking about Aristotle, and McKeon interrupts him and sets about to correct his interpretation. He does it again on page 16. Whenever Burke starts talking about Aristotle, McKeon interrupts and corrects. This goes back to "Rhetoric in the Middle Ages" (1942), when McKeon writes about the tradition of logic which passed as ‘Aristotelian’ yet which followed Aristotle only in the treatment of terms and propositions, and Cicero in the treatment of definitions and principles (4). It seems at these moments that McKeon thinks that Burke is a kind of interloper in discussing Aristotle.

5. Burke on words as symbolic action: pgs. 14-16

The main contrast between rhetorical and poetic approaches becomes central around p. 15, where McKeon, using example of King Lear, contrasts Burke’s view of text as symbolic action and Chicago School’s view of it as an artificial object. It is also one of the few times that Burke actually interrupts McKeon, “You don’t worry about jealousy?” Burke erupted. “About marital jealousy? You’re not allowed to speak of it? What kind of scheme is that? You can’t talk about what the damn thing is built on!”
It’s from this point on that the contrast between rhetoric and poetic dominates the discussion, much of which revolves around how to decide what is inside a text and what is outside. Listen to how McKeon interrupts Burke and Burke’s reply: You’re doing that in this method, Dick. But you’ve got this motive that you are dealing with.

“On the contrary, if you bring all your sociological gunk in.”
“Now wait a minute...” Burke replies.

Debate over how to decide this issue carries over into the Q&A period.

7. McKeon on Criticism Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction: pgs. 16-20.

McKeon is very complimentary of Booth throughout (14, 19). Booth seemed to indicate that his Rhetoric of Fiction was a result of both the influence of McKeon and Burke.  McKeon seems to be suggesting to Booth in front of Burke that Booth's work is less dramatistic and more philosophical, as is also suggested by Timothy Cruisus’s introduction to Burke and the End of Philosophy, as he places Wayne Booth within the philosophical rhetoric of McKeon, rather than the dramtistic rhetoric of Burke. The debate concludes with a Question and Answer Session: pgs. 20-39. At one point during the Q&A, they had to move the entire audience to a different room, so in many places the transcript is incomplete.

There are several characteristics of their 1970 debate that shed light on how Burke himself saw his place in the Chicago rhetorical community. Throughout the debate, McKeon speaks for Burke and interrupts him many times. It is worth noting, however, when McKeon interrupts Burke. "This is the point where I have to explain what you're saying" (8). Burke has just spent a couple pages talking about Aristotle, and McKeon interrupts him and sets about to correct his interpretation. Whenever Burke starts talking about Aristotle, McKeon interrupts and corrects. It seems at these moments that McKeon thinks that Burke is a kind of interloper in discussing Aristotle. What is also interesting is not just that they needle each other, but who does it, and when. While I hear a little insecurity in McKeon’s taunts to Burke, there aren't any instances of the wordplay that Burke was so adroit with here either. McKeon says in the debate that, “Mr. Burke and I were undergraduates together. We argued at that time; we’ve been arguing ever since.” By generally avoiding conflict throughout the debate, however, Burke demonstrates his own position as an outsider to the philosophical rhetoric of McKeon and Booth.

In writing about letters exchanged between Burke and McKeon, Bob Wess writes, “Turning to Aristotle in the Burke/McKeon correspondence, one finds Burke and McKeon sometimes referring to Aristotle as “Howard” (Wess 2014). In the McKeon archives at Chicago, the last reference to “Howard” that appears in letters to McKeon is on March 4, 1949, “Whisper this to Howard,” Burke writes (Burke to McKeon 1949). In his letters to McKeon after this date, he refers to “Aristotle,” but never “Howard.” For instance, in his August 14, 1961 letter to McKeon, Burke writes, “For instance, how can one accept Aristotle’s term chrestos as requirement number one for a tragic here without plunging into the tangle of its etymology?” (Burke to McKeon 1961). In their debate in 1970, there are 15 references to Aristotle, and not one to “Howard.” Wess speculates on the origins of the “Howard” references, “Burke’s propensity to give nicknames suggests that he may have started the “Howard” references. But anyone familiar with McKeon is likely to suspect that in all things Aristotle, McKeon would demand precedence. Furthermore, a transcript of one of McKeon’s courses has been published, and in it, McKeon refers to Aristotle as “Howard,” without explanation and evidently for a laugh, which the transcript indicates he did get. So McKeon used “Howard” outside his correspondence with Burke” (Wess 2014). If this is the case, then why would not either Burke or McKeon refer to “Howard” in a debate about Aristotle? What is most fascinating to me about Bob’s analysis is the "fan" characteristics of the letters. So, there's a performative aspect in the letters--they are performing for each other at different times. When they do not perform for each other, Burke using "Aristotle" for Aristotle rather than "Howard," seems just as important. As a kind of linguistic marker, therefore, Burke did not use Howard for Aristotle after that date.

Wess seems to describe this condition as well by using another example: Burke’s use of “Charlie Marx’ for “Charles Marx.” Wess writes, “When the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto appeared, the authors were identified as ‘Citizens Charles Marx and Frederic Engels’; also, years later, when visiting a European health resort, Marx signed in as ‘Herr Charles Marx.’ Perhaps, then, Burke’s “Charlie Marcus” aims to separate those in his audience who share this esoteric information from those who do not” (Wess 2014). To me this suggests a shifting of their relationship—not only was Burke was no longer “performing” for McKeon, but neither was McKeon performing for Burke.

Both Bob and I present the 1970 debate between Burke and McKeon, “Rhetoric and Poetic,” in its full form. I would just like to speak to the use of the debate transcript as a document of rhetorical history and its place in the rhetorical theory canon. I teach Burke, McKeon, and Booth in a rhetorical theory seminar, and the way in which we have used it is to conduct staged readings of this debate in class. By “dramatizing” the transcript of this debate, students encounter not just Burke or McKeon’s theories, but their theories as an act, an unintended result that I hope Burke would have approved.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Letter to Richard McKeon, March 4, 1949. Richard McKeon Papers. Chicago: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

Burke, Kenneth. Letter to Richard McKeon, August 14, 1961. Richard McKeon Papers. Chicago: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

Wess, Robert. “The Aristotle(s) in the Burke/McKeon Correspondence: Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and His Chicago Circles.” Paper given to the 9th Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society, St. Louis University, July 17–20, 2014.

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