Volume 5, Issue 2, Spring 2009

Along with an editorial from editor Andy King, the Spring 2009 Issue of the Kenneth Burke Journal contains the following new essays: Benedict Giamo “The Means of Representation: Kenneth Burke and American Marxism”; Cem Zeytinoglu “Ad Verbum Purgandum or Literally Purgation”; David Gore “Attitudes Toward Money in Kenneth Burke’s Dialog in Heaven Between The Lord and Satan”; Carlnita P. Greene “Early Disaster Cinema as Dysfunctional “Equipment for Living”: or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Kenneth Burke”; Tara Lynne Clapp "Social Identity as Grammar and Rhetoric of Motives: Citizen Housewives and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.”; Carly S. Woods "Everything is Medicine": Burke’s Master Metaphor?"; & Ian Hill, "“'The Human Barnyard' and Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Technology." The issue also contains book reviews of Burke, War, Words and Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, as well as a closing essay by editor Andy King.

Editor's Introduction

Andrew King, Louisiana State University

AT THE RECENT EASTERN COMMUNICATION ASSOCIATION convention in historic Philadelphia, Floyd Anderson and Matt Althouse wondered about Burke’s Pentadic mutation, that incandescent moment in 1969 when the Pentad suddenly became a Hexad. Before Darwin and Wallace, Herbert Spencer had believed that systems of thought could evolve in complexity and richness as surely as living organisms. “By God, it was like growing a sixth finger in the night,” said Anderson and Althouse paraphrasing Burke.

Anderson and Althouse asserted that Burke had developed the term attitude (an incipient action) in the 1930’s but had not brought it into the pentad until his 1969 moment of spiritual elevation. They also note that he was never able to incorporate it into the pentad despite the fact that he told Hugh Duncan "adding an extra term to the Pentad is like acquiring another soul or suddenly gaining an extra existence."

Questions were raised as to whether Burke would be happy with Anderson and Prelli's Pentadic Cartography, the system of rhetorical mapping that is now being hailed as one of the most original and generative uses of the Pentad. It has been used to decode advertising, to critique politics, to provide a vocabulary for visual rhetorics, And it has unexpected uses. It has even been used by Cheryl Tatano Beck of the University of Connecticut to map birth trauma and post traumatic stress in delivery rooms. Several persons at the conference confided that they did not believe such a departure from traditional Burkean criticism was Burkean. But then, just how Burkean was Burke?

Of course contradictions are what make writers interesting and Burke was a mass of contradictions. In the 1990 Conference at New Harmony he confessed that he was emphatically a man of the city, but that he nearly always sought rustic isolation to do his literary work. Burke loved company and bustle but resented the overdeveloped horror of flimsy houses and orbital roads that was breaking the bucolic atmosphere of his neighborhood. He believed in the socially ameliorative power of good criticism, yet he preferred continuing mystery to the final resolution of problems.

For Burke there was always another counter-statement. As Floyd Anderson has said: "His most characteristic move was his counter-statement. He never closed the universe of discourse, but was always opening up other perspectives." For Burke criticism was not merely pointing out weaknesses or faults. One had an obligation to display an alternative vision of things. But then what could one expect from a man who spoke of ‘whole parliaments and legislatures in his head?

The present issue contains a couple of articles and one review that deal with Burke’s political orientation. Instead of thinking of Burke as an American original, these writings put him in the context of his time. Recall that Burke’s most productive years occurred when people thought they were living through the final collapse of capitalism, a gloomy era. It was a morbid age that saw the future of civilization in terms of disease, death and decay. Like FDR, Burke thought the economy was mature and that its future lay not in growth but in the redistribution of wealth. Near enough it was a vision of Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s polite socialism accompanied by long range Soviet Style planning without the Brutalism in architecture or the four million dead kulaks.

The 1930’s was a dark age of eugenics, fascist dictators, mass unemployment and the back to the land movement. Despite his clutch of literary friends, Burke felt adrift in the treacherous tides of his era. Malcolm Cowley remembered Burke’s long dark night of the soul in the spring 1979 issue of The Southern Review:

Kenneth, having left his job with the Rockefeller foundation, had retired to a farmhouse in New Jersey, three miles from a railway station (no electricity, no running water). He chopped wood and wrote. . . . He now worried about the effect of his divorce upon his three daughters. He worried about the state of the country. He worried about the risk of his family’s sinking into utter destitution. He had written a novel, Towards a Better Life (1931) in which the hero declines into a state of catatonic dementia, and that was another worry: mightn’t he end as his hero ended? Could he avoid that fate by joining with others to build a better world? (p. 278)

And these dark nights brought Burke to join what we now call the Old Left along with other American writers in the very year in which Hitler achieved full employment and prepared to frighten the French out of the Rhineland.

It was a time of great confusion. When the League of American Writers under Waldo Frank proclaimed their independence from the American Communist Party, they sang a celebratory version of the International, after which several of their members rose and objected to the absence of the word revolutionary in the newly emergent organization. And in our entry into World War II, many of these same American writers denounced the Old Left, and formed what would become the bulwark of the Neo-Conservative elite, leaving Burke as always the ‘Sea Green Centrist’, vulnerable to abuse from all sides.

We have yet to do much about Burke’s unfashionable interest in delivery. Recently Josh Gunn has recalled this guilty flight from our past, our shameful retreat from the canon of delivery. Professor Gunn notes that we buried delivery under a mountain of silent texts, and drove it from us like an unwelcome old dependent, not good enough for the farm house but useful in the barn, the pens and the silos. Our models were English and Classics, departments that were strongly cathected to canonical manuscripts. Increasingly, delivery did not seem to be a respectable study for aspiring mandarins. As Donald K. Smith once said: “We still (1960) have a dire fear of being branded elocutionists.” Lo, it is true. When I proposed a joint seminar with Communication Disorders, Performance Studies (then called Oral Interpretation), Theatre Arts and Rhetoric at the University of Arizona in 1980, there was suspicion in every eye, and consternation in every face. The chair of our department, a decayed amateur middle weight boxer, eyed me from a fighting crouch.

"We have been trying to bury Elocution ever since James Winans posed with the skull of Aristotle for that painting at Dartmouth," one Division Head averred.

"Haven’t you ever read but the shameful vulgarity of elocution? The bird calls? The cheap vocal tricks? The absurd gestures? The disporting of college youths in public fountains? The masks? The choral drones? Do you want us to be ridiculed by deans and savaged by provosts?" another expostulated.

"Perhaps we might participate if you don’t go beyond the end of the eighteenth century," said another.

"We could do it as an antiquarian curiosity. It might be exhibited like limner’s portraits, alchemist’s tools, or Greco-Roman declamation," a kindly emeritus professor piped in.

I faced what the Harvard Business Review calls "a sliding doors moment." The cage was open but the bird had flown. Delivery was a humble subject. To these Jacobin intellectuals, it was almost like studying a bodily function. I might as well have proposed a retrospective on Morris Dancing.

As a despairing Waldo Braden said of the new theorists: "By God, King I used to think all we had in common was the larynx. But these deep thinkers don’t even acknowledge that."

Burke was emphatically a student of the text but he was also obsessed with delivery. His interest in tone and inflection, his pleasure in telling jokes, his recitation of poems and stories, his ‘voices’ and his deep interest in convoluted puns represent an area that has not been sufficiently looked at. But as Professor Gunn notes, the dead hand of Ramus still throttles us and as respectable disciples of Petrus Ramus we avert our eyes from a canon that constitutes rhetoric’s most unique hallmark.

In the meantime I plan global outreach for the journal. Next week I will publish a letter from a Chinese Burkean scholar who will report: “Almost nothing of note on Burke has emerged from China recently.” It is my hope that local readers will say: "My goodness, the KB Journal has penetrated deeply into China." It was through such ambitious strategies that the Journal Nature changed from a British lab newsletter to the leading international journal of science in the world. I hear a rising chorus of voices as we march on the citadel. Rom-ah! Rom—ah!! Rom—ahhh!!!!

The Means of Representation: Kenneth Burke and American Marxism

Benedict Giamo, University of Notre Dame


Kenneth Burke’s engagement with American Marxism advanced the primacy of language, rhetoric and interpretation in constructing reality and communicating its attendant motives. Although Burke added a discerning voice to the communist movement, often anticipating post-Marxist theory and cultural studies, his social criticism eventually redirected itself from Marxism per se to the probes inherent in technology and empire. The article review this development chronologically and mainly through the Burke books published in the thirties and his writings that appeared in the influential periodicals of the period.

WILLIAM PHILLIPS, LONG-STANDING EDITOR OF THE PARTISAN REVIEW, recalled marching in a May Day parade in New York City during the thirties with Kenneth Burke at his side. According to Phillips, Burke joined in the shout: “We write for the working class.”1 Perhaps Burke had subordinated his own literary ego to that encompassing solidarity of the group, for it is hard to imagine that, speaking for himself, he was being true to the situation. Anyone who has delved seriously into “boikswoiks” knows that, although tremendously rewarding, they are dense, idiosyncratic, and metacritically challenging.

So, in adding his voice to the slogan, what was Burke saying? Rather than viewing it as a disingenuous statement, Michael Denning, in The Cultural Front, interprets Burke’s consent to join in that collective shout as a declaration of his political allegiance. His heart was in the right place, even if his writing hand abstracted away from the mundane, concrete concerns of the oppressed masses. To draw on Burke’s own definition of identity, he was most likely exercising one of the “‘corporate we’s’” that constituted his sense of self and selfhood. Although Burke was never a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in the United States, for a time he was a fellow-traveler, sympathetic to the general orientation of the movement, for which he had “plumped grandly,” albeit in his own inimitable way. Whether or not Burke’s contributions made him, as Denning advertises, one of the “leading American Marxists of the 1930s,” and “the most important communist cultural theorist in the United States” at the time,2 is debatable. Perhaps it is a form of wishful thinking, a kind of “occupational psychosis,” to apply a phrase from Burke who borrowed it from John Dewey. In Burke’s own words to me, he described his relationship to communism in the turbulent thirties as “working round the edges.”3 Since Burke was in his mid-eighties when he made that remark, perhaps this too was a selective manner of perceiving his involvement with Marxian critical thought and praxis as he looked back from such a great distance.

Whether “leading American Marxist,” or “the most important communist cultural theorist,” or simply “working round the edges,” one thing is certain: Burke and Marx shared a common heritage, for they were both born on May 5th. Many critics of systematic Marxism would hold that this is the only glue, celestial no less, that binds these two figures together. As a pragmatic proponent of American Marxism, Burke was anything but doctrinaire. In fact, his original approach to literary and social criticism, and his more theoretical enterprise in general (beginning in communication and ending in the philosophy of language as symbolic action), made Burke very independent-minded. He may have been a fellow-traveler in the thirties, but he was not a fellow-follower. His Marx collided with his Frost, for although he wanted to be “part of an overall partnership,” his Emersonian inheritance of self-reliance insisted that he take the road less traveled. In 1932, Burke clarified his position in a letter to Malcolm Cowley:

“I am not a joiner of societies, I am a literary man. I can only welcome Communism by converting it into my own vocabulary. I am, in the deepest sense, a translator. I go on translating, even if I must but translate English into English. My book [Permanence and Change] will have the communist objectives, and the communist tenor, but the approach will be the approach that seems significant to me.”4

As Paul Jay rightly observed, Burke’s translation of Marxism “veered away from the more conventional concerns of Marxist critics toward the elaboration of a form of cultural criticism based on an examination of what we now call representation, discourse, and the problem of the subject.”5 In short, Burke’s approach–an ethically focused rationality–was mainly metacritical and holistic. His engagement with Marx was often integrated with other theorists, such as Bentham, Freud, and Veblen, to advance a form of inquiry that centered on the primacy of language, rhetoric, and interpretation in constructing a given reality and communicating its attendant motives. Even before it was codified as such, Burke’s critical project in the thirties rested on the premise that language is a form of symbolic action. Therefore, communication itself is a kind of rhetorical praxis that aims to both inform and persuade. (Frank Lentricchia offered another, more “radical” translation of this notion when, in revising Marx to fit the leisure of the theory class, he stated: “The point is not only to interpret texts, but in so interpreting them, change society.”)6

Unlike Lentricchia, Burke would never conflate text and world, nor would he assume that the symbolic acts of communication and interpretation in and of themselves command authority, power, and social change. Indeed, as Burke wrote in his 1953 Prologue to the second edition of Permanence and Change: “Political, military, and industrial powers are much more likely to ‘set the tone,’ so far as the ‘implementing’ of perspectives is concerned.”7 As a critic, Burke understood his role during the thirties as combining “technical criticism with social criticism . . . by taking the allegiance to the symbol of authority as [his] subject.” According to Burke, “We take this as our starting point, and ‘radiate’ from it. Since the symbols of authority are radically linked with property relationships, this point of departure automatically involves us in socio-economic criticism.”8

In many ways, Burke was a product of his times—an intellectual and literary man moving away from the modernist Anglo-American sense of art as a self-contained and autonomous object to a more socialized outlook. For Burke, and as early as Counter-Statement, this meant comprehending language (and literary art) as symbolic action embedded in social situations. The belief in literature as a kind of moral aestheticism, Burke’s modernist sensibility, altered around 1930. Although he would always adhere to the ethical notion that literature constitutes a moral and civic force, Burke discovered a much more encompassing medium when he redefined art as a form of communication. This opened the doors of perception in terms of rhetoric, literary and social criticism, the philosophy of language, and his growing concern about the unintended consequences of technology and the built environment. From this perspective, Burke was not a typical fellow traveler—one of a multiple.

The development of Burke’s thought in relation to American Marxism is significant because it anticipates post-Marxist theory and cultural studies, especially regarding the critique of the architectural metaphor (base/superstructure).9 Burke’s increasingly more sophisticated treatment of economic determinism and dialectical materialism can be viewed as a kind of anti-foundational argument, making ample room for an analysis of cultural processes and ideologies. Also, he perceives Marxism as an ethical system—a social drama—rather than a strictly scientist enterprise. Finally, Burke is ahead of the curve by anticipating the linguistic turn and the trouble with technology. The latter interest subsumes the battle of the Isms, and leads him into the notion of World Empire—a forerunner of globalization and its discontents. (He had been sounding this warning since the mid-1950s.) Burke’s unflagging skeptical orientation, in part a result of his allegiance to the tradition of American progressivism, and his wide-ranging intellect, made him an easy mark for revisionist accusations by both American Trotskyites and Stalinists during the thirties. Burke harbored no cloak-and-dagger conspiracy, but merely displayed the mark of his own critical adventurousness.

Working round the edges of Marxism in America was, after all, a strategic way for Burke to size up a complex and socially charged situation without getting sucked into the vortex of an absolutist political program and mode of thought. Yet Burke’s contributions toward the radicalism of the Depression years should not be minimized simply because of his swerving critical orientations. As always, he added a discerning and discriminating voice to the communist movement, a distinctive shout, one that would eventually redirect itself from Marxism per se, and Burke’s comic yet critical appraisal of industrial concentration under a system of capitalistic production, to the transcendent fix of Big Technology. For the most part, we shall review this development in chronological order and mainly through Burke’s books published in the thirties and his writings that appeared in the influential journals and little magazines of the period.

As one of the key New York City modernists of the twenties, Burke stumbled into the thirties with a spirit of rebellion rather than revolution. An overriding sense of bohemian revolt, inherited from both Thomas Mann (Burke was the first to translate Death in Venice into English) and from the cultivated aestheticism of literary fellowship at The Dial and in and around Greenwich Village, inspired Burke’s critical perspective on American culture and society. At this stage (his entry into the thirties), the tone of his writings is often playful, taking good-natured stabs at capitalism, captains of industry, and radical adaptations to American conditions. The bohemian revolt, with its characteristic ingredients of experiment and mockery, provided Burke with a period of radical incubation along with a decentering perspective from which he could pivot stridently. His slogan for this initial phase might very well read: “give vent, give vent, by dint of verbal dent.”10 For example, the following poem, written around the time of the Crash of ‘29, reveals Burke’s adept use of bohemian irony. The poem, “Industrialist’s Prayer,” should be read with the night-time image of a CEO kneeling at his bedside:

Lord, make all men feel that they are suffering from the lack

of my commodity. Let them not really need it, since

I would be uncharitable in asking that. Let them

just think they need it----and let them think so, very

very hard. And let them get the money somehow to

buy it.

Not from the government, since that would increase my

taxes. Not from higher wages, since that would

increase my costs of production. And not as manna

from Heaven, since that would cause inflation.

All that I ask of Thee----Lord----is just one more miracle, that

good business shall not perish from the earth.11

The sense of revolt at this time was given a certain Marxist emphasis gleaned mainly from Marx’s critique of capitalism and its inclination toward accumulation and concentration of wealth, technological progress, increased productivity, commodity fetishism, and exploitation of the working class. But the revolt also owes as much to Thorstein Veblen and his notion of “conspicuous consumption.” In “Waste----The Future of Prosperity,” composed before the Great Crash and published afterward in The New Republic, Burke offers a burlesque treatment of the contradictions of capitalism. Along the way, he carefully explicates his “Theory of the Economic Value of Waste,” which rests upon the principle of planned obsolescence. By virtue of a reductio ad absurdum, we come spiraling down to the following formulaic regression:

It is now an exploded belief. We realize now that culture resides in prosperity, that prosperity is the outgrowth of production, that production can only follow consumption, that the maximum consumption is made possible by the maximum possible waste, and therefore that culture depends upon a maximum of waste.12

To illustrate the absurdity of this causal relationship, Burke draws on examples from the automobile industry, architecture, a public utility, and advertising. Before long, the cumulative effect builds and we come to see that good business, with its insatiable appetite, not only stimulates but demands the fabrication of need, the temporary exhaustion of want, and the stockpiling of consumer refuse to both expedite and purify the vicious cycle. For Burke, the principle of obsolescence is the goad of a capitalistic economy geared toward prosperity (and entrapment) at all costs, embedding its producers and consumers into a materialism run amok. In this scheme of things, the very stuff of culture depends upon the interlocking motivation to work, produce, consume, and toss.

In “Boring from Within,” which appeared in the same periodical about six months later, in February 1931, Burke extends his rebellious tone to a critique of Edmund Wilson’s “Appeal to Progressives.” With his tongue-in-cheek style, Burke renounces Wilson’s plan for the nationalization of industry and its overt association with socialism. Playing off the stigma of communism in America, Burke advocates a more subtle and covert subterfuge which keeps Wilson’s ends in mind. This amounts to a gradualist measure, a single tax on large incomes which, in the by and by, would transform ownership of the means of production. In other words, we must play the game by the standard of American liberalism and inject a change of rules in the process. By all means, avoid waving banners for they evoke an absolute distrust. The approach of “boring from within” satirically displays a quintessentially American habit of attempting to reform government (and society) incrementally from the inside out. According to Burke, in order to hollow out the old and usher in the new, the following method must be employed:

We must all become Republicans and Democrats . . . shaking hands with the worst of them, frequenting their speakeasies, gambling in their dens, attending their churches, patronizing their brothels. We must join Rotary Clubs; we must play checkers at the Y.M.C.A. We must demand unceasingly the expulsion of the Reds. We must be conformity itself. And occasionally, over drinks and a cigar, we must say lightly to our boon companions . . . “Why don’t the big fellows have to part with a little more of their incomes in times like these?”13

In his concluding comments, Burke signals an attitude of skepticism when contemplating the changing of the guards, thus promoting a reflexive bohemian position of unmitigated individualism. “Flags may still be needed to combat flags,” he writes, “but the triumph of the last flag should coincide with the triumph of flaglessness. If there is ever a millennium, it will be the reign of doubt.”14 The primacy of doubt works to discount Burke’s radical leanings and puts into question the nature of any allegiance to the symbols of authority. In springing this bohemian opposition, Burke’s approach seems to rest upon disorder, distrust, and a pervasive sense of uncertainty. Both capitalism and communism thus dissolve as political and socio-economic forms of control in favor of a prescriptive yet undermining aesthetic featuring renunciation.

This bohemian antithesis was further developed in Counter-Statement, Burke’s first book of mostly formalist literary criticism, published in the same year as “Boring from Within.” In his essay entitled “Program,” Burke contrasts the practical qualities of the capitalistic ethos with the aesthetic virtues of resistance in order to heighten the dramatic bourgeois–bohemian opposition necessary to his subversive method (i.e., statement/counter-statement). Here we witness the epitome of anarchic revolt, which functions as nemesis to the prevailing socio-economic order. “On the side of the practical [bourgeois]: efficiency, prosperity, material acquisition, increased consumption, ‘new needs,’ expansion, higher standards of living, progressive rather than regressive evolution, in short, ubiquitous optimism.” Such sanguine effects result from Burke’s naive equation: business= industry. The opposing side, that of the aesthetic or bohemian, is advanced as a corrective to the practical. This other side seems to be idling away on the street corner, sketch pad in hand, thumbing its long, aquiline nose at the buoyant philistines passing by, whistling blithely on their way to offices and factories. These bohemian qualities include: “inefficiency, indolence, dissipation, vacillation, mockery, distrust, ‘hypochondria,’ non-conformity, bad sportsmanship, in short, negativism.” Going to the end of the line, Burke succinctly overstates the case–for “the practical: patriotism–the aesthetic: treason.”15

For Burke, the dehumanizing geography of the practical borders on bureaucratic hyper- rationality, which resembles the fascist integration of politics and production. The danger here is that such integration may motivate a culture to seek the perfectibility of its practical bourgeois virtues, enforcing the repression of humankind’s most precious pastime: idle curiosity. If indolence should become “pandemic,” Burke suggests we look to change the faulty and restrictive environment that conditions such attitudes and behavior, for what appears by conventional standards to be a vice might very well be a virtue waiting to blossom under the proper conditions. (John Dewey’s progressive experiments with curricular revision and experiential learning would be a case in point.)

Burke comically exaggerates the penchant for resistance when he states: “When in Rome, do as the Greeks. . . . Let us reaffirm democracy (government by interference, by distrust) over against Fascism (regulation by a ‘benevolent’ central authority).” The split between the practical bourgeoisie and the bohemian aesthete leads Burke into a division between modern and pre-modern modes of existence. As he views the difference, modernity is aligned with progress–the machine, industrialization, and the frantic pace of urban life. In such a state, where people run the danger of becoming “rotten with perfection,” the aesthetically-minded bohemian can only shrug his shoulders and respond in a manner that adjusts the coordinates of a mechanized order, thus eroding enthusiasm and wearing away the laugh lines of optimism:

When a system becomes so complex that it requires a high degree of perfection for its survival, when it can’t provide a civilized living by shoddy, unintelligent, lethargic methods, then mankind had better change the system for a system which can provide a civilized living by shoddy, unintelligent, lethargic methods. . . . “Efficiency” was required to develop the machine. “Inefficiency” is required as the counter-principle to prevent the machine from becoming too imperious and forcing us into social complexities which require exceptional delicacy of adjustment.16

Though keeping to his strident criticism of laissez-faire capitalism and its discontents, Burke’s comic moral radicalism underwent a profound change by 1933 when his article, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” appeared in The Nation. The piece marks a transitional point in which bohemian rebelliousness begins to give way to a growing pro-socialist position. It is significant not only for its alignment with the general direction of the movement, but also for its clarification of the relationship between business and industry, a reconceptualization vital to the development of Burke’s thinking.

Burke argues that under a system of capitalism there is an inherent breach between ethical values and the nature of work. To be ethical, work must aim toward the “application of . . . competitive equipment to cooperative ends.” Under capitalism, this “combative–cooperative” fusion is preempted by the valorization of social ambition and competitive business practices which are elicited and reinforced by the unfettered free market. In following Veblen’s crucial separation given in his Theory of Business Enterprise, Burke now distinguishes business from industry: “We must worry ourselves as to ‘what is good for business,’ rather than ask the more fundamental question, ‘What is business good for?’”17 Of course, the answer is that the role of business is to serve the more cooperative ends of industry and thereby reinstate the ethical integration of work and society. Burke claims that such a synthesis can even lead to the abolition of all wars, since the manifestation of the “cooperative spirit” would be fully expressed in a civilization at peace rather than one rent by competition and frustrated by strife, thus seeking embodiments in conflict and bellicosity. (Burke reiterated this claim, albeit more explicitly–i.e., “Communism . . . eliminates the hegemony of business,” in “My Approach to Communism,” which appeared in the New Masses one year later, stating the following: “The Communistic orientation is the only one which successfully produces the combative-cooperative fusion under conditions of peace, hence the only one upon which a permanent social structure can be founded. It does not eliminate the competitive genius, since that is ineradicable, being rooted in the very nature of man. But it does permit of its maximum harnessing to the ends of social cohesion.”)18

Burke’s binary distinction between business and industry enabled him to jettison the stark and vulnerable opposition between bourgeois and bohemian modes of social being. Since one can be industrious (active, skilled, diligent, assiduous, inventive, and so on) without necessarily adhering to the capitalistic business enterprise of the practical bourgeoisie, there is no longer any need for dissent based upon anarchic irresponsibility. One can be industriously opposed to the prevailing order and at the same time committed to a renewed program of action stressing pro-socialist, cooperative citizenship. This timely teasing apart of business and industry coincided with Burke’s public initiation into the radical ferment of the thirties; in many respects, it was his conceptual way in to a more encompassing dialectic.

The article concludes by advocating a “corrective or propaganda element in art” in order to balance “‘pure’” art, which tends toward the acquiescent. Burke was too steeped in aesthetic modernism to ever promote abolishing pure art, or art for art’s sake. Rather, he diplomatically makes the case for extending literature into the realm of the hortatory. However, Burke argues that even when this rhetorical or suasive function is adopted, the “moral breach” is far from mended. Burke came down on the corrective proletarian literature then on the market for being too “harsh,” thus failing as both propaganda and pure art: “Too often . . . it serves as a mere device whereby the neuroses of the decaying bourgeois structure are simply transferred to the symbols of workingmen.” And, once again, the discount: “Perhaps more of Dickens is needed, even at the risk of excessive tearfulness.”19 Although Burke had found his path into the movement, his own critical industriousness often ushered him back to its very threshold.

Between 1933 and 1935, Burke made his way back through the gate, laying out his argument that–in comparison to capitalism and fascism, and for rational, ethical, historical, and esthetic reasons, communism was the only viable choice for a just society. This clarification (“My Approach to Communism”) sets the stage for his participation in the first American Writers’ Congress in 1935, which was organized by members of the John Reed Club of New York. The Congress assembled over 200 of the most politically radical writers in the United States, and 150 writers from foreign countries who came as guests, including such socially-engaged literary figures as Robert Cantwell, Malcolm Cowley, Emilio Enricos, Waldo Frank, Andre Gide, Mike Gold, Josephine Herbst, Granville Hicks, Andre Malraux, and Richard Wright. (Langston Hughes could not make the event, but his paper was read in absentia.)20 The Congress opened in Mecca Temple, New York City, to an audience of 4,000 people. On the second day of the Congress, April 27th, Burke presented his paper–“Revolutionary Symbolism in America”–in the auditorium of the New School For Social Research. By taking up the topic of symbolism, Burke signaled to the audience the importance of communication and rhetoric in broadening the appeal of communism among the American public. By pragmatically altering the means of representation, he advocated adapting the key rallying image of the proletariat to American conditions, that is, to the social structure that developed differently in the U.S. compared historically to the more rigid stratification of classes in Europe. The tone of the paper-presentation was sincere (even rather humble in places); its message seemingly innocuous. In his paper, Burke argued the following:

The symbol of “the people,” as distinct from the proletarian symbol, . . . has the tactical advantage of pointing more definitely in the direction of unity. . . . It contains the ideal, the ultimate classless feature which the revolution would bring about–and for this reason seems richer as a symbol of allegiance.21

This quote proved prophetic, since four months later the Communist Party, in an attempt to broaden its base, shifted its rhetorical line to what would be known and virtually accepted by all members and sympathizers as the People’s Front (a.k.a. the United Front or Popular Front). But, although the process of increasing tolerance was underway during the years 1934-1935, this more encompassing outlook would not be officially mandated until August of 1935; in April of that year, and especially during the Congress proceedings, despite the factional disputes, the overwhelming sentiment was decidedly elsewhere. Burke would suffer the consequences of his premature vision, for the vagaries of the Party would ostracize him one day only to sloganize the essence of his speech at a later date.

In his presentation, Burke went on to criticize “antithetical moralities” that polarize representative groups in the social system, such as proletarian vs. bourgeois. (Evidently, Burke had learned a penetrating lesson from his own previous modernist dichotomy.) In rectifying this situation, Burke may have been perceived as being excessive in leaning toward the other direction, that of appeasement:

The emphasis upon the antithetical tends to incapacitate a writer for his task as a spreader of doctrine by leading him too soon into antagonistic modes of thought and expression. . . . As a propagandizer, it is not his work to convince the convinced, but to plead with the unconvinced, which requires him to use their vocabulary, their values, their symbols, insofar as this is possible.22

Overall, Burke’s rhetorical notion of “propaganda by inclusion” appears quite compelling, particularly in light of the poor quality of proletarian literature guided by the doctrine of “propaganda by exclusion.”

The second crucial aspect of Burke’s paper entailed the role of the creative writer. Burke urged the writer “to propagandize his cause by surrounding it with as full a cultural context as he can manage, thus thinking of propaganda . . . as a process of broadly and generally associating his political alignment with cultural awareness in the large.”23 Although Burke’s second major point would naturally seem to follow from incorporating the first suggestion, he does not insist that the audience make acceptance of one conditional upon the other. And, although Burke promotes the symbol of “the people,” he never makes the case for abolishing the proletarian image from the revolutionary program. Both can co-exist in order to reveal capitalistic exploitation and socialist solidarity. Yet the symbol of “the people” does emerge as significant for Burke and the reasons for this are openly disclosed in his conclusion:

Since the symbol of “the people” contains connotations both of oppression and unity, it seems better than the exclusively proletarian one as a psychological bridge for linking the two conflicting aspects of a transitional, revolutionary era, which is Janus-faced, looking both forwards and back. I recognize that my suggestion bears the telltale stamp of my class, the petty bourgeoisie. And I should not dare to make it, except for a belief that it is vitally important to enlist the allegiance of this class.24

An orthodox Marxist, of which there were many assembled in the Congress auditorium that day, would object to Burke’s proposal, since it severely compromises the dictates of the historical prophecy, particularly the second stage, or the polarization of two classes–a dwindling bourgeoisie and a growing and consolidated proletariat. Accordingly, all other class segments would disappear or seek alliance with one of the above. Even the petit bourgeois, historically in between the ruling and exploited classes, would be absorbed eventually by the latter social category, and not as a result of pleas rising from below, but by virtue of an inevitable step prescribed by the dogma of historicism. The petit bourgeois, Marx wrote in the Manifesto, “are being constantly hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition, and, as modern industry develops, they even see the moment approaching when they will completely disappear as an independent section of modern society.”25 From this perspective, Burke’s pleading for unity could very well be criticized as a diffusion of class-conflict and the necessary tensions and actions resulting from it. For Marx’s historical prophecy would not have its propagandizers wasting their time by convincing the historically convinced (my italics). Such a measure would be seen not only as redundant but as an unnecessary attempt at reconciliation. As with utopian projects, it would only work “to deaden the class struggle” and displace vital energy to social groups doomed to fall into the ranks of the working class anyway.

But in defense of Burke’s suggestions, we can read into it an implicit critique of Marx’s faith in his historical prophecy and the crude oversimplification that resulted in terms of class polarization. As Burke stated in his response to “What is Americanism?” (a symposium on Marxism and the American tradition), published one year later in Partisan Review and Anvil, “There is only danger in the naive attempts of some to make a build-up for Marx as the omniscient and unerring wizard of prophecy. It will be resisted by ‘Americans’ because it would be resisted by any people. Marx is a forerunner, and must be presented as such (as he is presented in the Russian Marx-Lenin combine).” Obviously, Burke had the benefit of hindsight on his side. The social spectrum was more intractable than Marx had imagined it; the gray would not fade into black or white. With these conditions to contend with, Burke opted for a strategic symbolic activism centered on the folkways of American realities. It might assimilate “their” ethos and world view, but it would do so in the service of the movement–a unity of the people achieved on native ground. Again, with reference to the question raised in the above symposium, Burke expressed his pragmatic, progressive position as an American Marxist when he responded in the following manner: “The Marxist critique of capitalism is basic to an understanding of the whole matter. The use of such critique can be as ‘American’ as anything. . . . It is ‘American’ to use anything one feels might be of value in remedying one’s situation. Be it an old piece of tin, or be it an old piece of philosophy----its relevance to an American situation depends not upon its origin but upon its application.”26

In any case, the audience at Burke’s session was not concerned with the fine points of such a discussion. The members of the Congress were in search of a victim, and one had just lowered his head in offering. Ironically, what ensued when Burke finished his presentation, and after the polite applause, was a vivid example of his own subsequent theory of the scapegoat, that of “congregation by segregation.” Only this time, he was the one being set apart–the goat–rejected on behalf of the Congress’s own momentary sense of order and unification. Although the gaffe was dramatized by Burke thirty years later in The American Scholar, and recast more recently by Lentricchia in his Criticism and Social Change, the incident is worth repeating, especially given Burke’s definition of form–“an arousing and fulfillment of desires,” as given in Counter-Statement. If nothing else, it is an illuminating case study of what happens when the unexpected occurs, that is, when the audience, though plenty aroused, does not go along with you, voicing frustration rather than fulfillment. Though perhaps overacting, Burke relates with dramatic verve the result of his breach of conventional Marxian form:

Then the boys got going. Oof!. . . . Joe Freeman gets up, throbbing like a locomotive, and shouts, “We have a snob among us!” I was a snob in conceding that I was a petit bourgeois and would have to speak like one. Then Mike Gold followed, and put the steamroller on me. Then a German emigre, Friedrich Wolf, attacked my proposal to address the “people” rather than the “workers.” He pointed out the similarity between this usage and Hitler’s harangues to the Volk. And so on, and so on–until I was slain, slaughtered. . . . I felt wretched. I remember, when leaving the hall, I was walking behind two girls. One said to the other, as though discussing a criminal, “Yet he seemed so honest!”

I was tired out. I went home and tried to get some sleep. . . . I lay down and began to doze off. But of a sudden, just as I was about to fall asleep, I’d hear “Burke!”–and I’d awake with a start. Then I’d doze off again, and suddenly again: “Burke!” My name had become a kind of charge against me–a dirty word. After this jolt had happened several times, another symptom took over. Of a sudden I experienced a fantasy, a feeling that excrement was dripping from my tongue.27

Fortunately for Burke, the shift from rejection to acceptance was swift. The following day, Burke ran into Freeman and all was forgiven: “Joe came up and smiled and shook hands with me, and said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, old man.’ It was all over!” Soon afterward, and casting doubt on any real sense of marginalization, Burke was elected Council member of the League of American Writers, an organ that replaced the John Reed Clubs and advanced the spirit of relative inclusion engendered by the First American Writers’ Congress. To make sense of such an abrupt change of fortune, Burke tells the following tale:

Some friends of mine had an aquarium, with a frog in it. He was a big frog, but there was a cover on it so that he couldn’t get out. Then somebody gave them a little frog, and they put the little frog in the same aquarium. And the two frogs would sit there side-by-side. One day my friends looked in–and by God they couldn’t find the little frog. The top was on, but where was the little frog? They looked all around, no little frog. All of a sudden they spotted him. There were his feet sticking out of the big frog’s mouth. So they pulled him out; and since he hadn’t started to get digested yet, he was all right. All they could do with him was put him down in the aquarium again. And they did. The next time they looked in, these two fellows were sitting side-by-side. All was forgiven. I often think of that story when I think about politicians.28

Perhaps Burke’s own proximity to the heart (or belly) of the Marxian revolutionary spirit in America came at the very instant in which he was about to be devoured. For the time being, Burke was reconciled to sitting side-by-side the Communist Party in the U.S. One month after the Congress, Burke wrote a very favorable review of its events in The Nation, generally commending the structural role played by the CP in orchestrating a gathering of writers committed to the fusion of aesthetics and radical politics on so grand a scale. Near the close of his review, and with a flair for good sportsmanship, Burke reiterates his relationship to the movement:

As one who is not a member of the Communist Party, and indeed whose theories of propaganda, expressed at one session, even called down upon him the wrath of the party’s most demonic orators, I can state with some claim to “impartiality” my belief that no other organization in the country could have assembled and carried through a congress of this sort. The results justify the assertion that those who approach the issues of today from the standpoint of cultural survival must have sympathy at least with communism as a historical direction.29

Burke’s own sympathy with communism as an historical movement is clearly evidenced in the first edition of his Permanence and Change, published in 1935, just prior to his participation in the Congress. The book, originally given the working title–“Treatise on Communication,” is mainly concerned with “poetico-political speculations” regarding the notion of the human as “communicant.” In his Prologue to the second edition, Burke, reflecting on the general hardship of the Great Depression, puts himself in parenthesis, while revealing his own strong interest in the primacy of language: “Though he [the author] had an almost magical fear of destitution, he never passed up a single meal for lack of funds. . . . So, all told, concerned with words above all, when things got toughest he thought hardest about communication.”30 Although Burke “plumped grandly” for communism in the first edition, his approach throughout remained primarily cultural (both interpretive and philosophical), treating forms of the superstructure (in particular, the system of communication) as integral and constitutive acts rather than as epiphenomena of material conditions prevailing at a certain time.

Concerned with the transformation of a communicative medium from its orientation to disorientation–“perspective by incongruity”–and reorientation (read: demise of capitalism and rise of communism), Burke actually engages Freud, behavioral psychologists, Bentham, Veblen, and Nietzsche far more than he does Marx. Since his focus is on the interrelationship among orientation (and its vicissitudes), motive, communication, and social reality, this naturally leads him to the importance of interpretation itself, which, in mediating reality, keeps it in flux by virtue of our fundamental attitudes and symbolic acts. In Part I of the first edition, Burke asserts that “motives are distinctly linguistic products. . . . Our minds, as linguistic products, are composed of concepts (verbally molded) which select certain relationships as meaningful. . . . These relationships are not realities, they are interpretations of reality----hence different frameworks of interpretation will lead to different conclusions as to what reality is.”31

Just as Marx turned Hegel on his head, Burke performs a similar maneuver with Marx. For rather than viewing consciousness as the conditioned response to a determinant Marxian infrastructure (economic base or substratum of material conditions), Burke sees the mind as “largely a linguistic product.” But rather than turning Marx upside down, for that would lead us back to Hegel, Burke’s prescient act is this: to enable the means of production and the means of representation to stand side-by-side in true dialectical fashion. For Burke, this leveling of the interaction between cultural and economic realms (and, in a more individuated sense, mind-body) completes the circumference of human purpose and social change. As Jack Selzer documents, Burke wrote to Matthew Josephson on 11 September 1935 that “Marxism does provide some necessary admonitions as to our faulty institutions, but as I understand it, it is exactly 180 degrees short of being a completely rounded philosophy of human motivation.”32

At this time, Burke’s antifoundational approach to communism rested on the conviction that a reasonable civilization was dependent upon both a viable system of communication and cooperative enterprises. Communism as a historical objective was compelling to him because of its humanistic qualities, which spoke idealistically to the economic as well as spiritual nature of humankind. “So far as I can see,” Burke writes, “the only coherent and organized movement making for the subjection of the technological genius to humane ends is that of Communism, by whatever name it may finally prevail.”33 In addition, he was drawn to the integrating function of communism as a “unifying ‘master-purpose,’” one that would promote a “philosophy of being” in which the competitive struggle, premised upon conquest and degradation, would yield to peaceful civic participation and harmony. But, above all, he thought hardest about communication:

A sound communicative medium arises out of cooperative enterprises. And the mind, so largely a linguistic product, is constructed of the combined cooperative and communicative materials. Let the system of cooperation become impaired, and the communicative equipment is correspondingly impaired, while this impairment of the communicative medium in turn threatens the structure of rationality itself.34

As an American Marxist, Burke’s encompassing pragmatic and cultural approach to communism in the thirties demonstrates his willingness to both employ and critique Marx. For instance, his criticism of dialectical materialism had been brewing for a while. His refutation of economic determinism first appears in “The Status of Art,” the fourth chapter of Counter-Statement. In this chapter, Burke maintains that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. To hold that economic and political forces are primary and aesthetic acts secondary is a specious form of logic, one that begins with the broad social context and ends with a “hierarchy of causes whereby economic manifestations could be called causally ‘prior’ to aesthetic manifestations.” Clearly, the privileging of economic forces as “prime movers” reveals an ideological bias, for, as Burke notes, “it is not very sound dialectic to assume that, because two things change concomitantly, one can be called exclusively a cause of the other.”35 This raises the question: Is the dialectic in dialectical materialism a mere modifier? If correlation is tantamount to causation, then one can easily reverse the direction of causality to feature ideas and attitudes as a kind of immovable mover. As an example, Burke cites the feminist movement of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries and its great impact upon society.

Burke continues his critique of the Marxian perspective in Part III, Chapter Five of Permanence and Change, in the section entitled “The Basis of Reference.” In challenging Marx’s materialistic determinism, Burke advances the precedence of psycho-biological factors as constituting a new, more fundamental basis of reference underlying the primal impulse for liberty. This interest in tracing freedom of thought and action (whether speculative, artistic, or applied) to ahistoric and non-material conditions is given impetus by Burke’s understanding of the significant, formative role of our “organic genius.” Once again, in building a more complex case for “an endless chain of ‘dialectically’ interacting material and spiritual factors,” Burke clarifies his position: “Materials may determine the forms our enterprise takes, but they can hardly explain the origin of enterprise.”36 To empirically establish this origin, Burke rests his case on behavioral and neurological experiments which give substantial weight to the psycho-biological claim that the basic need for human mobility (which underwrites freedom and the “‘cult of liberty’”) is grounded in the organism itself. Accordingly, Burke argues, one may very well begin the initial movement of the dialectic on this basis of reference. However, it is more complicated than that. Given the evidence, along with a “somewhat Spinozistic conception of substance,” a more complete form of integration is required:

By the biological point of reference, disputes between materialists and idealists would seem to be dialectically dissolved. . . . Whether you call the fundamental substance matter or idea seems of no great moment when you talk of mind and body with a hyphen, as mind-body. Once the implications of this hyphen are carried through the entire texture of one’s thoughts, [one’s] starting point in an interacting cycle is seen to be justified only as a convenience of discourse. . . . In this respect, materialism, idealism, and dialectical materialism merge into a kind of 'dialectical biologism,' framed in keeping with the hyphenated usage, mind-body. . . . But [they] may all be alike in this one notable respect: all four systems of verbalization may stress, in accord with science, the need of manipulating objective material factors as an essential ingredient to spiritual welfare.37

In Attitudes Toward History, originally published in 1937, Burke reiterates his point that, technically, in order to be true to the nature of interaction, dialectical materialism cannot base itself on materialism as the fundamental substance, or starting point, of the interplay between material and spiritual factors. “Thus, it would be literally nonsense to say “‘This is both A and B, but it is only A.’ Formally, it means: ‘dualistic monism,’ which can’t be.” However, discounting the theoretical problematic inscribed in the Marxian formula, Burke is now willing to view the privileging of material forces in historical context as a way for Marx to begin anew, especially since the church had previously cornered the market on the spiritual basis of reference: “The choice of materialism is not ‘logical,’ but ‘sociological.’ The word is a slogan, a comprehensive bit of shorthand.”38

Although Attitudes clarifies Burke’s position as “pro-socialist, anti-capitalist,” it is more concerned with cultural processes and the symbolic analysis of poetic categories that convey attitudes toward social reality framed around “acceptance” and “rejection” (Schopenhauer’s Bejahung und Verneinung) than with Marxism per se. In addition, there is a part devoted to historical progress, from Christian Evangelism to Emergent Collectivism, a chapter on ritual, and a “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms,” which discusses some of Burke’s seminal concepts and terminologies, including “bureaucratization of the imaginative,” the central metaphor of the book. This metaphor, which links unforeseen consequences to idealistic conceptions when the latter get translated into concrete embodiments, signals Burke’s own curve of development from idealism (the cooperative/communicative ethic) to realism (the conflict inherent in human association).

A scathing review of the book by Sidney Hook led to a nasty public squabble between Burke and Hook in the pages of the Partisan Review. In “An Exchange,” Burke responded, “Is Mr. Hook A Socialist?” In his defense, Burke attempted to correct “the falsities of emphasis” in Hook’s review, which turned Burke into a sinister apologist for totalitarian communism, by quoting a long passage from the book. Burke follows the quote with the following statement: “Hook makes my whole book appear like a mere off-shoot of the Stalin-Trotsky controversy. . . . I freely state, in this sentence, my sympathy with the momentous tasks confronting the U.S.S.R., and my admiration for the magnitude of its attainments. But by far my major interest is with the analysis of cultural processes as revealed by any and all kinds of historical and personal situations.”39 In his rejoinder, Hook inquires, “Is Mr. Burke Serious?” Rather than backing away, Hook digs his claws in even deeper, particularly exercised by Burke’s organizing metaphor. For political reasons that extend well beyond the covers of the book (and the scope of this paper), Hook unfairly suggests that Burke’s metaphor is intended to justify Stalin’s brutal regime:

If every venture of the human spirit can be regarded as a bureaucratized compromise . . . any specific bureaucratic outrage is part of the natural order of things. Criticism can be dismissed as Utopianism. This is a cunning but none the less fallacious linguistic device to attach the emotional associations of authoritative symbols . . . to a specific form of political despotism.40

Perhaps such demeaning sectarian squabbles, and Burke’s own hesitation to overtly denounce Stalin after the first round of the Moscow Trials, led to his relative withdrawal from radical politics in subsequent decades. (After the “Phartisan” Review incident, Burke referred to his nemesis both in conversation and correspondence as “Shitney” Hook.) But such a withdrawal should also be seen in the context of Burke’s own metacritical orientation as well as his re-engagement with the new framework of conflict generated by World War II (the techniques and hierarchies of cold war society), which we will turn to shortly.

In The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) and A Grammar of Motives (1945), Burke clearly charts his own orbit as a socially-engaged literary critic and philosopher of language and symbolic action. Although clearly apparent in the first part of the Philosophy, it is really in the Grammar that Burke reveals the results of his own protean development as man thinking. His eclectic, shifting, and wide-ranging intellectual capacity is evidenced throughout the book, particularly when he introduces and applies his method of Dramatism (the Pentad: Act–Scene–Agent–Agency– Purpose, and their various permutations) to both individual texts and branches of philosophy. Burke employed Dramatism “to consider the matter of motives in a perspective that, being developed from the analysis of drama, treats language and thought primarily as modes of action.”41 It probably comes as no surprise that one of those modes of action treated in the book was the Marxian dialectic. In the Grammar, Burke maintained his critical interest in Marx, but by this point in his writing career he had integrated Marx entirely into his own heuristic methodology.

In his reconstituted critique of historical materialism, Burke applies two components of his Dramatistic Pentad, that of scene and agent, to correct for Marx’s glaring neglect of ideational empowerment. A scene-agent ratio perceives thought and action determined solely by situational factors (the causal priority of historical conditions and ownership of the means of production). Obviously, this direction of the ratio is in alignment with the Marxian critical “sociologic.” But then, swiveling from his director’s stool, Burke reverses the arrangement of the ratio to read agent-scene, thus reclaiming ideas as causally equivalent. Burke refers to the Communist Manifesto itself to illustrate the persuasive power of ideas (formulated into propaganda) as a particular enactment: “Implicit in such an act there is certainly the assumption that ideas contained in it are social forces, and that the course of human action, hence the course of human destiny, will be in some degree altered by the diffusion of these ideas. Thus, in the Manifesto’s closing challenge [“overthrow of all existing social conditions”], we see what ‘views and aims’ may do, not simply as reflecting conditions, but as guides for the changing of conditions.”42

Burke’s other major point of contention is with the scientist motive behind Marxist philosophy which dismisses, by virtue of ratiocination, the ritualistic properties and ultimate eschatological design implicit in its vision. Perhaps also thinking back on his own experience as fellow traveler, Burke observes, “The patterns of communion, sacrifice, and transcendence involved in party loyalty give Marxism, on the symbolic level, the great value of a profound social drama”:

From the standpoint of our Grammar, the whole philosophy is essentially ethical rather than scientist, in that its entire logic is centered about an act, a social or political act, the act of revolution, an act so critical and momentous as to produce a “rupture” of cultural traditions.43
As Burke’s critical enterprise advances into the post-war era, we see less and less of an ideological concern with capitalism vs. communism. The battle of the Isms is transcended by means of two superseding conditions–that of the “hierarchal psychosis” and technology (or what Burke would come to call “Counter-Nature”). According to Burke, both are defining aspects of the human: we are separated from nature by instruments of our own making, and goaded by the spirit of hierarchy. With respect to the latter, in his 1953 Appendix to the second edition of Permanence and Change, Burke delineates the social process inherent in social order and its penchant for hierarchy in complex social organizations–whether capitalistic or communistic. “We take it for granted,” Burke states, “that the pyramidal magic is inevitable in social relations.” By treating property as an elastic concept, including both material and social accumulations (i.e., the “attributes of one’s office”), Burke explicates a dynamic that begins with the division of labor/property and distribution of authority, moves through the social mystery that arises from such divisions and distributions (i.e., the dissociation related to social stratification), and ends in guilt (or at the very least embarrassment), which is “cured” by the practice of victimage. Burke likens the process to the two great phases of Christian “spirituality”–categorical guilt and its cancellation. Given all this, Burke inquires, “Is it possible that rituals of victimage are the ‘natural’ means for affirming the principle of social cohesion above the principle of social division?”44

In posing the question, Burke is not registering approval; rather, he is simply interrogating the “hierarchal psychosis” as both a universal condition and a historical pattern. In keeping with this investigation, which is framed to supplant the cold war binary politics of Ism, Burke argues that such processes and results are “inevitable to social order.” Burke clarifies the difficulty in resorting to either mystification or demystification in solving the endemic social problem: “In the short run, ‘mystification’ may seem to be the best way of promoting social cohesion. But it has been so often misused in history by the defenders of special sinister interests, we clearly see its limitations, as regards the long run. Similarly, in a world wholly ‘unmasked,’ no social cohesion would be possible.” We are left in the cleft between a rock and a hard place.45

On the technological front, Burke’s notion of “Counter-Nature” refers to the cumulative effect of technological developments, that is, the conquest of nature and its transformation into the built environment. This environment both serves humankind and, following Emerson’s notion–“things are in the saddle and ride mankind”–turns us into bewildered, at times anxious servants of our instruments and their by-products (for instance, nuclear weapons and pollution). For Burke, technology is the genius and ultimate direction of humans. However, since Burke distinguishes the human as the “symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal,” our instrumentality has potential for creativity as well as destruction. In the aftermath of Attitudes Toward History, Burke “began to view the counter-natural innovations of Technology in the aggregate as a vast . . . destabilizing clutter, a bureaucratization of ingenious imaginings that takes on truly eschatological dimensions, powerful, pervasive, wasteful, pollutant, and challenging its human inventors to somehow round out the technical developments by developing a political bureaucratization competent to control them.”46

The technological dilemma is taken up by Burke in “Progress: Promise and Problems” (The Nation, 1957) and addressed extensively in “Motion, Action, Words” (Teachers College Record, 1960). In the former article, Burke cautions that “every addition to the positive powers of applied science will be an addition to the realm of human conflict."47 (Burke claims this to be the case even given the utopia of Marx’s classless society.)48 Burke’s message is simply put. He merely asks the reader to consider not only the promises of scientific application, but also its undesirable and often unpredictable consequences. Such considerations are necessary to remedy the excessively optimistic position that science, and not an intervening ethical code, will solve its own problems.

In “Motion, Action, Words,” Burke re-emphasizes the dual nature of technology, both its benevolent and malevolent properties, and exhorts readers to reconstitute their terms for disorder:

Technology . . . presents us, above all, with the problems of World Empire. . . . Big Technology has its own peculiar logic, and maybe Isms left over from previous eras obscure our understanding of its particular conditions.
I do not mean to imply that there are not real issues here, real grounds of conflict. . . . I am merely asking that we confront them in terms wholly relevant to the present state of technological development, and not in terms of some dramatic conflicts that that highly dramatistic thinker, Karl Marx, set up more than a century ago, for dealing with controversies germane to the state of technology in his times.49

Burke’s preeminent concern with technology is connected to modes of acquiring knowledge. He distinguishes between the physical sciences, setting the pace for technological production and deployment, the social sciences, whose emphasis is geared toward regulation, and the humanities, which provide the symbols to put this vicious cycle into perspective. “Insofar as all three disciplines . . . are all guided by the nature of terminology, might they not all, to this extent, be similarly goaded?” This question, which is at the very center of logology (words about words), reflects two central tenets of Burke’s quasi-linguistic determinism that influence the course of human conduct. First, the goad, or the “implicative nature of terminology,” suggests further developments to be sought out in a compellingly logical manner. Secondly, when this combines with the entelechial principle (the motive of perfectibility implicit in symbol systems) such previously mentioned guides may very well turn into a compulsion to track down the implications of a term, process, situation, or relationship to its utmost limit, thus driving us on and, under certain conditions, menacingly forward:

Such a responsiveness to implications seems to be at the bottom of all our human enterprises, based as they are on our nature as word-using, symbol-using animals. We are inherently endowed with terminologies that imply many sorts of potentialities and thus goad us to plan for their actualization.50
These motivational tenets of logology, or symbolic action, naturally transfer to technology which, “far from being ‘inhuman,’ is the very burlesque of a human being working and thinking.” In the face of weapons of mass destruction, indiscriminate pollution, and global warming, such implicative mechanisms accent our possible extinction rather than continued survival. The appropriate poetic category for his state of affairs, our “global destiny,” appears to be classical tragedy. As such, Burke can thus exploit the attendant Orwellian paradoxes inherent in the form’s dramatic irony: “Our security becomes our danger; our boast becomes our destruction; our self-satisfaction becomes our stupidity. Our pride goes before our fall.”51 Rather than inheriting the battle lines of Isms, we find ourselves, wherever we happen to be, in the epicenter of a “technologically goaded World Empire,” the total effect of technology itself, “[hu]mankind’s burdensome ‘fulfillment,’” and, perhaps, true eschatology.


*Benedict Giamo is an associate professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His research areas encompass homelessness, literary and cultural studies, and creative nonfiction. His most recent book—Kerouac, the Word and the Way, examines the prose art of Jack Kerouac as an expression of his ever shifting spiritual quest. His other books include The Homeless of Ironweed, a study of William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel and Albany Cycle; Beyond Homelessness: Frames of Reference (with Jeffrey Grunberg) and On the Bowery: Confronting Homelessness in American Society. His recently completed a work of nonfiction that examines the murder of a homeless advocate in Topeka, Kansas. Kenneth Burke’s writings on language, literature, and society have been of keen interest to him for the past three decades.

  1. Quoted from the symposium, “Thirty Year Later: Memories of the First American Writers’ Congress,” The American Scholar 35.2 (Summer 1966): 501. A discussion with Kenneth Burke, Malcolm Cowley, Granville Hicks, William Phillips; Daniel Aaron, moderator.
  2. Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London and New York City: Verso, 1996): 55-6 and 434-45; quoted from 444 and 436, respectively.
  3. Personal communication from Kenneth Burke, Emory University, February 1983.
  4. Letter from Burke to Malcolm Cowley (4 June 1932), in Paul Jay, ed., The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988): 202.
  5. Paul Jay, “Kenneth Burke and the Motives of Rhetoric,” American Literary History 1.3 (Fall 1989): 552 (n. 9).
  6. Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983): 10.
  7. See Burke’s Prologue to the second, revised edition of Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (Los Altos, CA: Hermes Publications, 1954; first edition, New York: New Republic, Inc., 1935): xxii-xxiii. It is important to note that, for reasons relating to intellectual development as well as political climate (not to mention being true to one’s title), Burke excised a total of about four pages of explicit references to communism from the first edition. The most significant references and passages that were removed can be found on the following pages of the original 1935 publication: 91, 93-94, 213, 345, and 347-8. For a complete accounting, see Edward Schiappa and Mary F. Keehner, “The ‘Lost’ Passages of Kenneth Burke’s Permanence and Change,” Communication Studies 42.3 (Fall 1991): 191-8.
  8. Burke, Attitudes Toward History, third edition (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984; first edition, two vols., New York: New Republic, Inc. 1937): 331. For the relationship of symbols of authority to the link between psychology and Marxism, see Burke’s “Twelve Propositions on the Relation Between Economics and Psychology,” in The Philosophy of Literary Form, third edition (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, l973): 305-13. (This piece was originally published in the Spring 1938 issue of Science & Society.)
  9. Karl Popper defines Marx’s extreme materialist emphasis in the following way: “From the scientific or causal point of view, thoughts and ideas must be treated as ‘ideological superstructures on the basis of economic conditions.’ Marx, in opposition to Hegel, contended that the clue to history, even to the history of ideas, is to be found in the development of the relations between man and his natural environment, the material world; that is to say, in his economic life, and not in his spiritual life. This is the why we may describe Marx’s brand of historicism as economism, as opposed to Hegel’s idealism or to Mill’s psychologism.” See Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962): 104.
  10. Quoted from Burke, “An Epistolation,” personal copy of an unpublished poem, Emory University, Spring 1983. The poem, addressed to Harold Bloom, begins in this fashion: “Before Life / the Pure Definitions of us / thee Heraldic Bloomer / and my Sickly Burpian Selph.” Several pages later, Burke ushers in the conclusion as follows: “And do Epistolate, lad in his Eighties, to your heart’s content / give vent, give vent, by dint of verbal dent.”
  11. Burke, “Industrialist’s Prayer,” from Collected Poems, 1915-1967 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968): 51.
  12. Burke, “Waste----The Future of Prosperity,” The New Republic, LXIII (16 July 1930): 229.
  13. Burke, “Boring from Within,” The New Republic, LXV (4 February 1931): 328.
  14. Ibid., 329.
  15. Burke, Counter-Statement (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968; first ed., New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1931): 111-12.
  16. Ibid., 119-21.
  17. Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” The Nation 137 (13 December 1933); 676.
  18. Burke, “My Approach to Communism,” New Masses X (March 1934): 18-19.
  19. Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” 677.
  20. See Henry Hart, ed., American Writers’ Congress (New York: International Publishers, 1935): 9-17. Also, for related detail and a very informative account of the political and social background setting the stage for the reception of Burke’s Congress paper, see Jack Selzer, “What Happened at the First American Writers’ Congress? Kenneth Burke’s ‘Revolutionary Symbolism in America.’”---- Selzer views Burke’s presentation within the broader context of an ongoing, intense debate within the left at the time. In this sense, Selzer’s understanding of the event is similar to Denning’s, who states: “The story of Burke at the American Writers’ Congress is not one of Burke against the left, but one of a controversy within the left.” See The Cultural Front, 444.
  21. Burke, “Revolutionary Symbolism in America,” in Henry Hart, ed., American Writers’ Congress: 90.
  22. Ibid., 92.
  23. Ibid., 93.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978): 493.
  26. Burke, “What is Americanism?” (a symposium on Marxism and the American tradition), Partisan Review and Anvil, III (April 1936): 10.
  27. Burke, “Thirty Years later,” 506-507.
  28. Ibid., 508.
  29. Burke, “The Writers’ Congress,” The Nation, CXL (15 May 1935): 571.
  30. See Burke’s Prologue to the second edition of Permanence and Change: xiv.
  31. Burke, Permanence and Change, first edition (New York: New Republic, Inc., 1935): 52.
  32. Selzer, “What Happened?” 6.
  33. Burke, Permanence and Change, first edition, 93.
  34. Ibid., 213.
  35. Burke, Counter-Statement, 80-81.
  36. Burke, Permanence and Change, first edition, 288.
  37. Ibid., 293-94.
  38. Burke, Attitudes Toward History, third edition, 245.
  39. Burke, “An Exchange,” Partisan Review IV (January 1938): 42. For a full account of the controversy between Burke and Hook, see Jack Selzer and Ann George, Kenneth Burke in the 1930s: Negotiating the Left (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press), forthcoming.
  40. Sidney Hook, “An Exchange,” 45. Forty-five years after this “Exchange,” Burke returned to the heart of the matter in his new Afterword–“In Retrospective Prospect”–to the third edition of Attitudes Toward History: “Actually when the book was first published, the term ‘bureaucracy’ was a red-hot rhetorical weapon, as used by the Trotskyites in their attacks against the Stalinists, through application of the term ‘bureaucracy’ exclusively to the Stalinist dictatorship. And one stalwart word-warrior [Hook] had at me on the grounds that my widened use of the term ‘bureaucratization’ was designed purely to weaken Trotsky’s charge against the ‘Stalinist bureaucracy,’ whereas I took it for granted that not only was every government a mode of bureaucratization, but every business, church, conference, ball game, picnic, and ordered set of words on a page” (400-401).
  41. Burke, A Grammar of Motives, Introduction to first edition (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1945): xvi.
  42. Ibid., 207.
  43. Ibid., 209.
  44. Burke, Permanence and Change, new Appendix to second edition (“On Human Behavior Considered Dramatistically”): 286.
  45. Ibid., 294.
  46. Burke, Attitudes Toward History, Afterword to third edition (“In Retrospective Prospect”): 401.
  47. Burke, “Progress: Promise and Problems,” The Nation, 184 (13 April 1957): 324.
  48. Burke also acknowledges that “the ever-mounting purely instrumental problems intrinsic to the realm of Counter-Nature” cannot be avoided. See Attitudes Toward History, Afterword to third edition (“In Retrospective Prospect”): 424.
  49. Burke, “Motion, Action, Words,” Teachers College Record 62.3 (December 1960): 247.
  50. Ibid., 246.
  51. Ibid., 249. Some years later, in a shift of tone from tragic irony to satire, Burke explored another more absurd version of this “Apocalyptic Vision of Division.” It entails an imaginary real estate project–Helhaven–“a scientifically designed culture-bubble on the moon, . . . involving a high degree of technological organization. In short, and following a hyper-rational strategy, technology on earth is exploited to the hilt without cause for reactionary measures or regulatory controls. The planet is wasted (the ills of technology remaining behind) and a new and more virtuous technology arises, like a phoenix out of the ashes. It is displaced to our nearest celestial neighbor so that a highly selective society can promulgate itself under ideal conditions on our moon. Burke advertises the mythic dimension of such an enterprise: “HELHAVEN, the expertly planned and guided enterprise of Lunar Paradisiacs, Incorporated. A womb-heaven, thus in the most basic sense Edenic, yet made possible only by the highest flights of technologic progress–hence, Eden and the Tower in one. A true eschatology, bringing first and last things together–the union of Alpha and Omega” (316). See Burke’s upending scheme in its entirety, “Why Satire, With A Plan For Writing One,” Michigan Quarterly, XIII (Fall 1974): 307-37.


Aaron, Daniel; Burke, Kenneth; Cowley, Malcolm; Hicks, Granville; and Phillips, William. “Thirty Years Later: Memories of the First American Writers’ Congress.” The American Scholar, 35.3 (Summer 1966), 495-516.

Burke, Kenneth. “Waste----The Future of Prosperity.” The New Republic, LXIII (16 July 1930), 228-31.

__________. “Boring from Within.” The New Republic, LXV (4 February 1931), 326-29.

__________. Counter-Statement. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1968 (first edition, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1931).

__________. “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism.” The Nation 137 (13 December 1933), 675-77.

__________. “My Approach to Communism.” New Masses X (March 1934), 16 and 18-20.

__________. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. New York: New Republic, Inc., 1935 (second revised edition, Los Altos, Calif.: Hermes Publications, 1954).

__________. “Revolutionary Symbolism in America.” In Hart, Henry, ed., American Writers’ Congress. New York: International Publishers, 1935, 87-94.

__________. “The Writers’ Congress.” The Nation CXL (15 May 1935), 571.

__________. “What is Americanism?” (a symposium on Marxism and the American tradition). Partisan Review and Anvil III (April 1936), 9-11.

__________. Attitudes Toward History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961 (first edition, two vols., New York: New Republic, Inc., 1937; second revised edition, Los Altos, Calif.: Hermes Publications, 1959).

Burke, Kenneth, and Hook, Sidney. “An Exchange.” Partisan Review IV (January 1938), 40-47.

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Third edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1973.

__________. A Grammar of Motives. First Edition. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945.

__________. “Progress: Promise and Problems.” The Nation 184 (13 April 1957), 322-24.

__________. “Motion, Action, Words.” Teachers College Record 62.3 (December 1960), 244-49.

__________. Collected Poems, 1915-1967. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1968.

__________. “Why Satire, With A Plan For Writing One.” Michigan Quarterly XIII (Fall 1974), 307-37.

__________. “An Epistolation.” Personal copy of an unpublished poem, Emory University, Spring 1983.

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London and New York City: Verso, 1996.

George, Ann, and Selzer, Jack. Kenneth Burke in the 1930s. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

Jay, Paul, ed. The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1988.

Jay, Paul. “Kenneth Burke and the Motives of Rhetoric.” American Literary History 1.3 (Fall 1989), 535-53.

Lentricchia, Frank. Criticism and Social Change. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983.

Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 2. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962.

Schiappa, Edward, and Keehner, Mary F. “The ‘Lost’ Passages of Kenneth Burke’s Permanence and Change.” Communication Studies 42.3 (Fall 1991), 191-98.

Selzer, Jack. Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-1931. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

__________. “What Happened at the First American Writers’ Congress? Kenneth Burke’s ‘Revolutionary Symbolism in America.’”----

Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.

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"Means of Representation: Kenneth Burke and American Marxism; by Benedict Giamo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Ad Verbum Purgandum or Literally Purgation

Cem Zeytinoglu, East Stroudsburg University

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.”

—Horace (Odes iii 2.13)


This paper discusses an alternative way to look at the epigram from Burke’s Grammar of Motives and proposes to interpret it under the light of his own theorization of Dramatism and cathartic use of symbolic action. The paper draws a linguistic connection between the terms “war and “beauty” treating them as interchangeable double metaphors. Burke’s awareness of this was adumbrated in his own writings and in the manuscript of the Symbolic.


KENNETH BURKE'S FAMOUS GRAMMAR OF MOTIVES STARTS WITH THIS EPIGRAM: Ad bellum purificandum. “Beauty” of this motto not only stems from the fact that Burke gives us a way to deal with war but also because it synecdochally represents his literary/rhetorical theory of catharsis through language (Permanence 266). In this humble essay, by using Burke’s own method, I will argue that the epigram for GM is not an ordinary one but a synecdoche, which stands for Burke’s system that treats language as symbolic action through the course of catharsis.

First, I will discuss the visible meaning of this phrase, then I will try to “unveil” the other layers of meaning in the same maxim that inherently exist because of the way the Latin language was used. By using Burke’s ideas on transformation of meaning, I will demonstrate that the interpretation of the epigram otherwise requires a new configuration of a terministic screen and an agency ratio of the dramatistic pentad –since it was Burke’s common practice to use and discover double metaphors, wordplays and verbal expressions of perspective by incongruity. I aim to reveal that it is possible, in the operations of Burkean language, to understand Ad bellum purificandum as an indication of a synecdoche which, I will argue, would actually read as: Ad verbum purgandum.

It is important to state that my modest effort here is not to equate war with beauty but demonstrate that there is a connection between them in terms of symbolic action –at least by the way how Burke would define it. My aim is not to glorify war but try to present a Burkean explanation for how human beings can glorify war by transforming and transcending it though symbolic action. We need to remember that the actual project in the Grammar implied by the epigram is to propose a methodology and an attitude which, through a corrective terminology and use of symbolic action, war is not necessarily eliminated but transformed into a much benign from. The source of such transformation is the word. Language as symbolic action may coach our fiercest survival motives and resolve the tensions that rise from them through actual cathartic relaxation and purgation.

What Does Ad Bellum Purificandum Mean?

At the first glance, Ad bellum purificandum has an obvious meaning. Burke himself refers to this motto several times in GM with the apparent translation of the phrase. In his discussion of “Agency and Purpose,” Burke mentions that human beings need to perfect and simplify the ways of admonition, so that they can cease to persecute one another because of the urges rising from the misconceptions and distortions of purpose in different levels. He continues,

[S]o human thought can be directed towards ‘the purification of war’, not perhaps in the hope that war can be eliminated from any organism that, like man, has the motives of combat in his very essence, but in the sense that war can be refined to the point where it would be more peaceful than the conditions we would now call peace. (GM 305)

Thus in this section Burke mainly explains the phrase in its face value. This quote might justifiably be interpreted as that Burke argues for getting rid of the destructive, disruptive and perverted characteristics of activities which we call as war and transform this act into something much more peaceful than what we refer now as “peace” through operations of language. Lately, this aspect of the epigram’s interpretation was explained very well in Weiser’s “Burke and War.”

Burke also refers to a similar idea of resolution in his discussion of dialectical use of language. In that section, he mentions that the purpose of dialectician is the “discovery of truth by the give and take of converse and redefinition.” He defines this as a process of interaction between the verbal realm and the non-verbal realm that becomes simultaneously the completion of cooperation and the cooperation of competition, which, I believe, would demonstrate Burke’s view for war in its simplest form (GM 403).

Interestingly, in GM there is also another notable section where Burke makes a similar comment. In his argument for constructive linguistic action, Burke states that we must construct from the fundamental humanity of dramatist or dialectic wisdom:

This work (which would have as its motto Ad Bellum Purificandum, or Towards the Purification of War) is constructed on the belief that, whereas an attitude of humanistic contemplation is in itself more important by far than any method, only by method could it be given the body necessary for its existence even as an attitude. (GM 319, italics in original)

Here Burke not only gives us the literal translation of the motto but also explains his reasoning for understanding human language and communication as a constructive and perfected mode of cooperation (“Communication” 144). He thus points toward a linguistic situation in the means of dialectical thinking regarding the attitude as temporally and the method as logically prior (GM 339).

So, in this sense, an attitude for humanistic contemplation should have temporal priority to a method for linguistic contemplation, however even to have such attitude is only meaningful when there is a method. Thus method has logical priority in companion to the attitude. But logically prior can be expressed in the terms of temporally prior in dialectic operation (GM 430). The “purification of war” requires an attitude of understanding human symbolic action in its dialectical and cooperative terms, whereas it also requires a method to implement this dialectical and cooperative understanding in literary and rhetorical contexts by which humans “literally” purge themselves of pity and shame. Therefore, instead of cleansing our tensions in the body politic by destructive acts, it is possible to “purify” them by cooperative acts such as “communication” (i.e., symbolic actions through language, which “exist in human germ-plasm”) (Counter-Statement 48).

Meditations on Ad bellum purificandum

In Latin Ad bellum means “towards war” and purificandum is the gerundive form of verb purifico which means “to make clean, to cleanse, purify” according to Charlton T. Lewis & Charles Short’s Latin Dictionary.1 The word purifico is coming from the Latin roots purus (pure) and facio (to make). On the other hand, although bellum can be understood conventionally as war in accusative form in this phrase, that is not the only possible meaning of the word.

Bellum can also be the accusative form of bellus, which means “pretty, handsome, neat, pleasant, fine, agreeable” and it can also be neuter in gender as similar to the word for war.2 It is not surprising that also Burke realized that and, in his unpublished Symbolic, he mentioned the relationship between the words “beauty” and “war” in the section called “Preparatory Etymology” (33). Since Burke understands the connection and the etymological relationship between the ideas of beauty and war, maybe we can argue that in this context we may replace them. So if we understand the word bellum as beautiful rather than war, the phrase changes into something like this: “towards the purification of the beautiful (thing).”

This creates a very interesting connotation because if we think to remain loyal to the original meaning (that is “war”), we can also reach the same meaning from another route. We can assume that the word for war also symbolizes Mars who was the god of war in Roman mythology. Mars corresponds to the Greek god Ares who was also considered as the god of war.

In a sense, it is very interesting that even Greek and Roman cultures looked at the god of war very differently, both Ares and Mars share significant qualities. Firstly, they were both characterized as very handsome, and imagined in the form of warrior-like masculinity (Vir and ἀνδρει̂ος) which was considered as “beautiful” in both cultures. Also, interestingly enough, he had a stormy love affair with the goddess of beauty (Aphrodite – Venus). This strange association of war with beauty was very dominant especially in the Roman psyche. Even Burke himself points to this relationship when he was analyzing Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (Rhetoric of Motives 218).

Therefore, Ad bellum purificandum can again mean “towards the purification of the beautiful”, directly referring the Mars himself (masculine accusative here), or by association to Venus. The other important point is the purification activities related to Mars. Through the fiery processes of war and strife, brought to the individual through the influence of Mars, the god of war, a needed purification takes place.

One of the mentioned festivities is called suovetaurilia. The purpose of the suovetaurilia was lustratio (purification, from the verb luere “to loosen”). It was performed at certain state ceremonies, including agricultural festivals, the conclusion of a census, and to atone for any accidental ritual errors. If a temple was destroyed, the site had to be purified by the three-animal sacrifice before a new temple could be built. The suovetaurilia was also performed by the army as a lustration sacrifice to the Mars before a military operation.3 These instances also relate the act of purification to Mars, the beautiful god of war.

Once I traced down the etymological connection between “war” bellum with “beauty” bellum, I was curious to see if Burke himself ever alluded to this potential association given the fact that such reference would make the epigram ad bellum purificandum much more interesting. When I discovered that in his manuscript for the Symbolic he actually had a section on the etymologic relationship between the two distinct uses of the word bellum (Symbolic 32), I reasoned that he also probably thought about it, even it was in the faintest sense, when he was constructing the epigram. His analysis not only explains the relationship between “beauty” and “war” but also the both terms’ relation to “good.”

Towards the end the Grammar Burke talk about the idea of collective “sacrifice” especially within the context of war. He argues that the motive for war, fighting for a cause, has complex symbolic foundations (395). On the basest ground, the driving metaphor seems to be “service,” especially serving for one’s own society or country or group. Here the idea of service is intermingled with “defense.” It is possible to see even potential additional connections to later “Seven Offices” here (ATH 360). Defense has both constructive functions within a society and destructive functions in the actual act of war making. Citizens collectively defend the values and the livelihood of the very lifestyle perpetuated in their own societies in significantly cooperative manners by high forms of cooperation. As a result of the symbolic ethicizing of the means of support and the mode of being (hodos), anything that threatens it will receive an aggressive collective response (PC 197-213). Once such motive is canalized through a cathartic act especially in the accepted means of military service, we organize ourselves in armed forces contemplating “sacrifice” for the greater “good,” even pontificating “martyrdom.” Thus military organizations are designed and maintain for performing competition with the conflicting interests of other societies (i.e., enemy). Obviously, the dialectic opposite of the ethicizing motive will direct the depictions of the opponent’s means of support, mode(s) of being and values as “evil.” No doubt that fighting evil had been described as a “beautiful” thing to do in the past, and certainly it would be portrayed as so in future too.

In Dramatistic terms, an individual’s military service would demonstrate a (romantic) motive to perceive and aestheticize the action as sacrifice and argue for its “beauty” on two grounds. Within the act-scene ratio, fighting as sacrifice is beautiful because it proves that the individual has loyalty and fidelity to guiding values (ethicized means of support and modes of being). Secondly, since there is someone who is willing to kill and die for those values, that confirms and authenticates them as values. Thus they are worthy (good) enough to sacrifice oneself for. Hence sacrifice becomes an agency through which the beauty (of one’s own societal values) is adorned.

Moreover, war can be fully aestheticized purely in terms of forms. Shapes and styles in which we make war can be perceived as beautiful. We can observe this in two ways as well. On one side the literary depictions of war present a “poetic” experience, and on the other, the very aesthetic side of making war where “poetic” can be understood in terms of its original sense of “poesies” that refers to the art of war. This relationship between the literary construction and the real life experiences was one of the predominant motifs in Burke’s criticism. In the appendix of Grammar where he analyzes Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” Burke presents an equation of “beauty” with “act.” He argues that the reasoning is as follows: “beauty” equals “poetry” equals “act.” Nevertheless “beauty” is cannot only defined as a decorative thing, “but as assertion, an affirmative, a creation, hence in the fullest sense an act” (460).

Then again, in Symbolic (at least the copy that I have) Burke also relates poetic to aesthetic in etymologic aspects where as one refers to “making” the other points toward “revelation,” the original meaning of the word suggests “sense perception, sensation, organ or seat of sensation, sense of pain, knowledge, impression, appearance, display of feeling” (31). Thus the perception or the experience of war can be depicted in aesthetic terms in a physical context.

Lastly, beauty can be defined also as “the act of an agent” where it becomes a part of the personification mechanism in a romantic ideal. Such personifying points toward the idea of attitude as an incipient act (GM 460). Attitude serves as a pretext or a prerequisite for act. Therefore a warlike attitude may constitute an appealing and attractive “beauty” which ancients recognized and cherished in an overt expression within their mythological, social and artistic representations of value – Greek arête from Ares and Roman virtus from Vir (man, brave, hero, soldier, actualizing power).

Literary and Literal Examples

There are many literary examples that have potential expressions for relating beauty with war. A sort of terrible beauty can be a part of war even when straightforward accounts have to list a “butcher’s bill” of dead and wounded men. Richard Tregaskis, the war correspondent who was in Guadalcanal, writes, “I was surprised that enemy aircraft, flying overhead with the obvious intention of dropping high explosives upon us, could be so beautiful” (87).

In War is Beautiful, the story of an American idealist unfolds in a form of James Neugass’ own memoirs where he poetically describes the horrors of war in a very eloquent manner. However, there is nothing in the book that glorifies war. Rebeca Schiller, in her review of the book, states “the manuscript was found in the year 2000 at a Vermont bookshop among the papers of Max Eastman, editor of The Masses. The manuscript was accompanied by editorial queries and comments, including an observation on the title: ‘The title, ‘War is Beautiful’, is a Fascist slogan. If this is a naïve and misdirected irony, it is very dangerous.’” Even though the title refers to an ironic use of the phrase, it serves as an example of perspective by incongruity where war and beauty again associated.

Byron’s romanticism and artistic imagination constitutes an influential case for ethicizing war where prepares poetic arguments for a just war. Especially his involvement with the Greek Independence War and writings set up an attitude in Europe at the timeto support Greek efforts for establishing a nation state. Two of his very well known poems are Giaour and the Isles of Greece. In both poems Byron refers to the ancient valiant days of Greece when she produced the Homeric heroes and later defeated the Persian invaders appealing to the virtues associated with the institutions and the inheritance of ancient Greek culture, which clearly was held dearly as the foundations of the European civilization:

Clime of the unforgotten brave!
Whose land from plain to mountain-cave
Was Freedom’s home or Glory’s grave!
Shrine of the mighty! can it be,
That this is all remains of thee?
Approach, thou craven crouching slave:
Say, is not this Thermopylæ?
(“The Giaour”)4

The mountains look on Marathon---
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might yet be free
For, standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
(“The Isles of Greece”)5

Also a look at the British Great War poetry would justifies the connections of poetic, aesthetic and artistic representations of beauty within war. Such examples not necessarily glorify the war but praise the attitude where (warrior) poets try to find courage (as arête or virtus) in their own souls to die like a soldier. I cannot help but feel sympathy for these young men. Especially, I want to remember two poets here:

W.N. Hodgson (1893-1916)
“Before Action”6

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills where day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a solider, Lord.
By all of man’s hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavor that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say goodbye to all of this;--
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

Herbert Read (1893-1968)

“The Happy Warrior”7

His wild heart beats with painful sobs,
His strin’d hands clench an ice-cold rifle,
His aching jaws grip a hot parch’d tongue,
His wide eyes search unconsciously.

He cannot shriek.

Bloody saliva
Dribbles down his shapeless jacket.

I saw him stab
And stab again
A well-killed Boche.

This is the happy warrior,
This is he...

If we look at the cinematographic examples, we can remember Apocalypse Now, Platoon and more recently Thin Red Line. I believe that everyone can remember the helicopter attack to a Vietcong village accompanied with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and the scene where the Robert Duvall’s character Kilgore exults “I love the smell of napalm in the morning...it smells..like... like victory.” Towards the end of Platoon, when one of the commanding officers shouts into the microphone of the wireless, he exalts in an ironic manner “It’s a lovely fucking war” as he orders for a use of friendly fire to stop an enemy breakthrough. All through the Thin Red Line, just like Tregaskis’ observation, director Terrence Malick, places the war scenes on the background of beautiful scenery of nature where killing, dying and explosions indistinguishably mesh each other.

I already mentioned the possibility of perceiving art of making war in aesthetic means. Especially considering the management of the highly cooperative operations of war in terms of strategy and the actual tactics of fighting one may argue that such skill can be depicted as an artistic manipulation of material, weapons and men. In addition to that we need to notice that military organizations are not only structured in aesthetic forms, they also portray them in sheer appearance. From shiny, decorated and ornate ceremonial uniforms to highly functional combat suits, camouflage, emblems, design of combat vehicles and weapons, it is possible to recognize the aesthetic appeal. Even the fact that medals and other signs of military honors are called decoration is subtly peculiar. Thus one may argue that beauty as a part of the aestheticizing attitude can fuse with the artistic motive within the act of war making. As the exemplifying categories one can mention the following topics which individually deserve an extensive study on their own: Beautiful strategy or tactics, beautiful order, discipline and uniforms, beautiful weapons, beautiful scenes of war making (explosions etc.), beautiful acts of war making (experience) – purgation through using a weapon, adrenalin rush etc.

I remember one of my students who served as a marine in Iraq, touched upon a mental image, a remembrance from war, in one of his papers where he stated that one operation night he perceived a powerful AC-130 gunship fire in the dark sky like a fourth of July fireworks even though he knew the destruction that it caused at the point of effect.8 There are also many other accounts, where soldiers define the weapons, explosions, uniforms and other battle material or their own sensory experiences as beautiful.

For Ad bellum purificandum, on the notion of purification, we have another optional word to use. Since purification is stemming from the root of purus we can, instead of purifico, also use the word purgo (to make clean or pure, to clean, cleanse, purify)9 , which comes from the same root. Purgo is a more classical word in usage then purifico and is made by two words purum and ago (to put in motion, move, lead, drive, tend, conduct)10 . And the gerundive neuter accusative form of the word is purgandum. Therefore, our phrase becomes as something like ad bellum purgandum (towards purgation of the beautiful).

What Is Beautiful?

If we look closely to the notion “towards purgation of the beautiful,” it is subtle to notice what may become the subject of beauty. In “Poetic Process,” Burke argues that the relationship between beauty and art is like the relationship between logic and philosophy (CS 55). A philosopher uses logic to make philosophy and convince other but he does this because he also loves logic. In the same way, a rhetorician uses the persuasiveness of oratory as his channel of expression, not only because he is skilled in it but also because he loves it. Thus, a poet creates poetry, and it is his way of expression. He loves the poetry; he loves to use words and meanings in a particular way.

For philosophy, rhetoric and poetry then the subject and source of beauty is the word itself. Poet loves to play with the words, to transform the meaning in language to express certain feelings and ideas. Using language in that particular way is much more important and existentially significant to poet than what actually poet wants to say. Burke argues that:

The distinction between the psychology of information and the psychology of form involves a definition of aesthetic truth. It is here precisely, to combat the deflection... that we must examine the essential breach between scientific and artistic truth. Truth in art is not the discovery of facts, not an addition to human knowledge in the scientific sense…it is, rather, the exercise of human propriety, the formulation of symbols, which rigidify our sense of poise and rhythm. (CS 42)

However, in his discussion of “Thinking of the Body,” Burke also argues that “the incongruous relationship between the thinking of body and the reduction of poetic propriety” to mere social ones brings a locus of absurdity, because the aesthetic can by design “vow its practitioner” to stay fuzzy, and the relation to the body becomes blurred (Language as Symbolic Action 325).

In Burke’s understanding of language as symbolic action, the word becomes essential for transformation and expression of a meaning. The word itself is the channel and it is an organic part of human being. Thus, just the sheer act of using words in actual speech becomes a pleasant deed. Burke says, “That is, the psychology here is ... seen from another angle, form is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite “ (CS 31).

This pleasant act is for many aspects also a cathartic activity. Humans are naturally affected by the certain forms. These forms arouse a variety of appetites in humans. According to Burke, these appetites also create a psychosomatic tension, which humans feel a strong urge to release. Therefore, these pleasant forms are “pleasant” in two ways. On the first level they are “beautiful” when they are arousing an appetite (i.e., a bodily tension). On the second and the last level they are “beautiful” when humans release this bodily tension “pleasantly” (“Poetic” 56-57). Burke explains:

If there is a certain tension in human relations, the artist may exploit it dramatically by analyzing it into parts, “breaking it down” in to a set of interrelated roles. Such dramatistic analysis permits the tension to be “processed”; for whereas human relations the tension just is, the breaking it into parts permits these parts to act upon one another, in a series of operations that, when followed in exactly the order they have in their particular whole, lead to a “catharsis,” or “resolution,” at least within the conditions of the drama. Roles chosen by such a test are likely to be “entelechial” imitations, since they will imitate not particular individuals but basic human situations and strategies, translated into equivalent terms of personality. (“Dramatistic” 239)

Burke calls his system as dramatistic not only because he sees the symbolic human action as a “play” on a stage. He understands drama, as discussed in Aristotle’s Poetics, in its original form in which humans are purged out of pity and shame mimetically by the vehicle of linguistic action (PC 285). Drama is a derivation of the Greek word δρα̂́ω, which means, “I do, I do good” in general and has certain connotations as “offer sacrifice or perform mystical rites.”11 This word also has connections to a similar word: δραίνω (which means “I am ready to do”).12 In ancient Greek context, this “readiness” symbolizes a strong need to actualize the certain deed in question in active terms. Also, it is linguistically and semantically related to the word δραστικός (drastic) that has a very similar meaning we have now in the English language.

Therefore, the pleasant act or the things (verbal and non-verbal) is connected in dramatistic sense. By mimetic action through human language, there is a possibility of cleansing and releasing tension in human body politic (“On Catharsis” 355-56). The “beautiful” thing, which arouses and satisfies us, is the poetical and symbolical form that is orally actualized as the “word” in human language (Thames 16).

Burke referring to the pun of “urine” and “urn” says that this type of usages sometimes “reduces the process of catharsis, or ritual purging with its elaborate rites of purification go through the offering of victim hierarchically infused” (RM 310). Burke calls this process of transformations for heuristic purpose “joycing” (referring to James Joyce).

Then, if we go back the epigram, ad bellum purgandum (towards purgation of the beautiful), we can propose to transform bellum (beautiful) to verbum (word), also in neuter accusative case. Thus, what we have now is, ad verbum purgandum (towards purgation of the word).

Literally Purgation

Burke claims that dramatism, understanding symbolism as constitutive of human nature and action, should not only be considered as a metaphor; he argues that dramatism is literally true (“On Catharsis” 342). For Burke, as explained above, catharsis involves both the verbal and the nonverbal. Burke argues, “If man is the symbol-using animal, some aspects of poetic embodiment must relate more directly to his specific nature as a symbol-user, others to his generic nature as an animal.” Burke understands Aristotle’s use of the term κάθαρσις rather literally. Catharsis becomes a purge [to cause evacuation from (as the bowels)] so that human beings fulfill their needs for a certain type of cleansing orally (“On Catharsis” 354).

This oral purgation is intrinsically related to spoken word (“Prologue” in PC, lviii-lix). Thus, when we think about our motto’s last shape as ad verbum purgandum, its meaning might become to “towards purgation of the word” but the amusing part has not ceased. There is a double meaning veiled here. Because, even the mot-a-mot translation tells us that ad verbum is “to a word” in its conventional usage, the phrase ad verbum also may mean “literally.”13 In this sense, Burke’s epigram in GM ad bellum purificandum (towards the purification of war) becomes as ad verbum purgandum (literally or word by word purgation). Thus, purification of war is possible through an attitude and method that enable us to think language as symbolic action, which cathartically purges and pleases us in the course of actualization (PC 195). So word becomes a deed. This way we understand speech as action.

I found Burke’s epigram so interesting and tried to push it as far as it goes in the operations of language. I believe that ad bellum purificandum in these dialectical and dramatistic operations of language synecdochally represent Burke’s system of linguistic catharsis, ad verbum purgandum, and in the following section, I will try to demonstrate it.

Purgation Through Language: Beauty, Form, and Praise

Beauty is the basis of the aesthetic praise. The essence of beauty is its ability to give us pleasure (Burke, Literary Form 60-66). Even though this ability can be considered separately both in physical (body) and intellectual (mind) realms, the emphasis here should not be only on the intellectual side just because pleasure is generally considered materialistically as a part of the virtue of purpose.14 Contrary, pleasure ought to be approached as a whole in integration, or cooperation, of both physiological and psychological aspects (Burke, LSA 308-11).

The etymological foundation of aesthetics suggests that it is related to the human perception of things.15 A beautiful thing comes in contact with our senses, and through our sense perception, we recognize that it has beauty (or an aesthetic form). Then, in the course of our perception of the beautiful thing (bellus), through our feelings, we experience pleasure. Therefore, it is significant that which (combination) of our senses are involved in the process.

From the notion of perception, one reaches the idea of form as the center of aesthetics. However, the idea of form is not only limited to the physical realm; we also call things beautiful which please us intellectually (Burke, CS 31). There are beautiful ideas, metaphors, and thoughts. We talk of beautiful stories, poetry and speeches. Since these examples also have physically defined formal attributes, on the other hand, there is an inescapable ambiguity here. Therefore, it would be most fitting to mention that the idea of form has simultaneously two dimensions: there is a physical form, which we perceive through sensation, and secondly, there is an intellectual form, which we perceive through our mind.

For example if one is to speak of a beautiful speech, then he needs to focus on the two aspects of its form. The physical aspect of its form consists of sounds and it is related to performance of a physical deed as in the act of speaking. The actual utterances, gestures and mimics used in the speech together with its appearance (doxa) through the performance of a human actor (agent), compose the physical aspect of that speech (Barthes, Responsibility 269). This could be an everyday chatter, a poetical or a musical form; it could be a theatrical or a dramatic performance. The important point here is that we physically perceive it. We hear it; we see it.16 This gives us pleasure (or not) depending on the meaning we assign it.

On the other hand, its intellectual form rings in our mind with its logical composition, clarity, and fluency with the coherent definitions and arguments. And the act of following this process gives us pleasure too. A perfect example of this should be Cicero’s treatment of the parts of speech in De Inventione, namely invention, arrangement, expression, memory and delivery.17 (I.vii). It seems that invention and memory mainly emphasize the realm of the intellectual form, whereas expression and delivery do so the realm of the physical form, however arrangement can fit in the both realms. But as a whole, Cicero’s parts of speech, signifies the togetherness (cooperation) of the physical and intellectual forms. For him how one said something was as important as what that person said in a speech.

Forms, be physical or intellectual, are beautiful because they are pleasant. We praise beauty because it gives us pleasure. Again remembering Cicero, as he argues in Best Kind of Orator that the supreme orator is the one, whose speech instructs, delights, and moves the minds of his audience. Cicero continues to say; “giving pleasure is a free gift to audience” (delectare honorarium) in comparison to that “it is his duty to instruct” (docere debitum) (I.iii-iv). This probably sums up Cicero’s whole approach to rhetoric, since he was always an ardent defender of eloquence, and, especially in his Brutus and Orator, argued against the claims that most intellectual and philosophical ideas should be expressed in a plain language.

The aesthetic form, or beauty, both in physical and intellectual kinds, carries meaning (Burke, Literary Form 36-38). Because humans are animals with logos, and the performers of symbolic action, every form, and even formlessness, can have a meaning in any context. Human mind can associate, dissociate, construct and deconstruct any aesthetic form as it can do so to any linguistic structure and system of meaning. In addition to this, aesthetic perceptions can be trained, refined and educated. As any human faculty, habituation of certain aesthetic approaches may lead to a particular character (ἠ̂θος) of perceiving things in a specific way (hodos – ὁδός). Lately many try to explain this with cultural and social particularity of aesthetic beauty. What is perceived as beautiful in one culture, can be not beautiful for another, even it can be unintelligible. The reason behind that is not that one lacks the essence of aesthetic beauty but because each culture or society develops its own maps of perception depending on the symbolic and physical resources available to that culture.18

There is another aspect of aesthetic form related to the idea of pleasure, which is its ability to relieve stress, anxiety and strain in human beings. Following Aristotle’s treatment of the ancient understanding towards poetics and drama, Burkean system approaches human symbolic action as a linguistic way of cooperation by means of identification that is expressed in forms of mimesis. Through identification within symbolic action, human beings not only cooperate but also sooth their physiological and psychological tensions in terms of catharsis (Burke, LSA 308). The idea of catharsis is not only a mental configuration but also a real human phenomenon. The sheer effect of the use of human forms of speech is calming because of the fact that the “pure” act of speaking is a real human function; it precedes any symbolic action, and execution of this act is by itself pleasurable (Burke, CS 48).

It is a primary human motive to speak (or communicate in linguistic and symbolic forms) in any context, especially in which a human strive or need in life is frustrated for some reason by limitations in physical and mental environments or resources. Principally many political, economical and artistic imaginations find their foundations in these limitations when human beings respond to them by means of symbolic mimesis to cope with the changes around them (Burke, Attitudes 340). This mimesis is not a basic imitation that is separated or severed from the life itself, contrary it is a part of the “being” in the human being. However, that does not mean that humans only communicate when there are means of restriction in our abode (ἔθος). We also need to cooperate in order to fulfill our human virtue of purpose (têlos) (Burke, GM 30-31).

As Aristotle stated more than two millennia ago, it is hard to call any man without a community a human being. Also, expressing his Roman Stoicism, Cicero many times repeats the fact that human beings become civilized, when they founded communities by speech, by communicating each other, in search of wisdom. It is an imperative of our humanness to cooperate (and identify) with each other and with our environment (Cicero, De Inventione I.ii.2-3). Therefore one can mention about a dual human motive of cooperation and coping with others and the nature. It should be emphasized here that the source of cooperation is communicating. And the tools that help humans to communicate are the genuine forms of symbolic action and mimesis (Burke, RM 21).

In this human endeavor of cooperation, [identification] and coping, tools of mimesis, and the forms of physical and intellectual expressions should expectedly be pleasant to us. Even the corrupted kinds of these –competition (war), alienation (loathing) and crumbling (destruction of the earth’s habitat)– contradict with the original human motive towards cooperation; in their limited scopes they also surprisingly may give us joy!19 If it is so, then one can only stop in awe and think how enjoyable the realization of the authentic motives should be. The enjoyment that comes with this accomplishment ought to be the one that signifies the idea of happiness, which has been adorned and yearned by mankind for ages.

The forms of human expression are the criteria for the virtue of aesthetics (Burke, Literary Form 150). And for its indisputable bond to the idea of happiness, the praise of this virtue has always been part of the philosophical trends that articulate the metaphors of beauty, pleasure and happiness. What virtue of aesthetics emphasizes is the beauty and joy of a very human motive to communicate through the symbols of cooperation and identification towards the fulfillment of the purpose (τέλος) of the human physiological and intellectual being.

To sum it up, the virtue of aesthetics is based on the human perceptions. We perceive things in terms of forms. The perception of these forms, both in the physical and intellectual realms, depends on the different expressions of human symbolic performance and the human faculty of assigning them meaning as beautiful (of course the alien and unfamiliar forms initially labeled as ugly even though this may change in time). Through this symbolic action, aesthetic forms become pleasant because of the sheer experience of perceiving the forms (physical or intellectual) and the pure calming effect of performing the symbolic act itself are simultaneously enjoyable. When one praises beauty, one also praises the ways in which he or she perceives that beautiful thing (bellum).


  1. Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, www.perseus.tufts.edu
  2. Ibid.
  3. Patrick Faas. Around the Table of the Romans: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome. Palgrave Macmillan. 2003. p. 247-48.
  4. “The Giaour” by Lord Byron (1788-1824). http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/lbyron/bl-lbyron-giaour.htm
  5. “The Isles of Greece” by Lord Byron (1788-1824). http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/lbyron/bl-lbyron-giaour.htm
  6. Modern History Sourcebook: World War I Poetry: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1914warpoets.html
  7. Ibid.
  8. If the reader wants to see more illustrations of this point, he or she can just refer to the thousand of video images that are posted by soldiers on the Internet, where it is possible to observe some peculiar cheerful reactions of young serviceman towards explosions and firepower etc. as examples true shock and awe (referring to the second meaning; wonder).
  9. Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, www.perseus.tufts.edu
  10. Ibid.
  11. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu
  12. Ibid.
  13. See Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu [look under the entry for the word verbum].
  14. Let us remember that metaphorically many things or acts can be called as “beautiful” because they simply accomplish their own functions close to the expected ideal or “perfection.” As a part of the virtue of function we can talk about a musical instrument as beautiful because regardless of human element, it produces sounds perfectly (which it is built to do) as separately from its appearance (that is its form). From this example, we can conceive different scenarios in which it plays well but looks ugly or it plays terribly but looks great. But ideally we would like to see an instrument, which can produce perfect sounds and looks appealing in its appearance.
  15. The ancient Greek word for perception…
  16. …or if it is a written speech, we read it being exposed to the shape of the signs and letters; we see the design of the page and the paragraphs, the color and texture of the book etc. Even the smell of it?
  17. Invention, arrangement, expression, memory and delivery constitute an approach of analysis so perfectly that it can be applied to any artistic activity.
  18. One example of this would be a comparison of musical forms interculturally. For instance, the traditions of European Classical music and Classical music in the Far East (Japan, China, and Korea) demonstrate a critical difference. The structure and notation of sounds, foundations of rhythm, harmony and melody are almost contradictorily different. Mathematical formulae behind notes, configurations of tunes and materials of instruments are so dissimilar that the musical forms are almost alien to each other. In order to enjoy Japanese Classical music we need to train our senses to it. However, there is something universal in all forms of music -that is the kind of instruments. Most cultures have simultaneously have instruments of breath, strings and percussion which tells us that there is a common human experience behind the creation of instruments.
  19. War is one of the highest kinds of human cooperation. Especially Richard Thames, citing Burke, emphasizes this in every opportunity. Unfortunately what divides us unites some of us against the others so powerfully that we feel as if the others are the whole reason behind our sufferings and they constitute a threat to all human existence. Therefore we need to kill them. Both sides usually use a classical human scapegoating to clear themselves. We team up with our cause and demonize the others in loathing. This gives a strong impetus to a very high level identification. I am not going to deny that it can be argued that there is a just war; sometimes it can become necessary but I will insist that considering something as casus belli should not be a child’s game since it is not so difficult to see that we can easily can turn into the demons that we loath in our enemies. In what extent fire-bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo did not make Allies as brutal as Nazis and Japanese? In what extent did the atrocities of Nazis compensate their national suffering after WWI? In what extent did the imperialistic policies of European States worth to the destruction lived in the Great War? The list can endlessly go back like this.

Works Cited

Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. DVD. Paramount Pictures, 2001.

Barthes, Roland. The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

Burke, Kenneth. Grammar of Motives. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1969.

---. Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1969.

---. Symbolic of Motives. Unpublished manuscript (Thames copy).

---. Attitudes Toward History. rev. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon, 1961.

---. Permanence and Change. 3rd Ed. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1984.

---. Counter-Statement. 3rd Ed. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1968.

---. Language as Symbolic Action. 2nd Ed. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1968.

---. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 2nd ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1967.

---. “Communication and the Human Condition.” Communication 1 (1974): 135-52.

---. “On Catharsis, or Resolution, with a Postscript.” The Kenyon Review 21 (1959): 337-75.

---. “Poetic Motive.” The Hudson Review 40 (1958): 54-63.

---. “A ‘Dramatistic’ View of Imitation.” Accent 12 (1952): 229-41.

Cicero. The Best Kind of Orator. Trans. H. M. Hubbell. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1949.

---. De Inventione. Trans. H. M. Hubbell. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1949.

---. Orator. rev. ed. Trans. H. M. Hubbell. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.

---. Brutus. Trans. H. M. Hubbell. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.

Lewis, Charlton T., and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary. http://perseus.tufts.edu.

Neugass, James. War is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War. New York: New P, 2008.

Platoon. Dir. Oliver Stone. VHS. Orion Pictures, 1986.

Schiller, Rebeca. “...When they’re not shooting at you.” Review. The Internet Review of Books. Feb. 2009. 14 Apr. 2009 <http://internetreviewofbooks.com/feb09/war_is_beautiful.html>.

Thames, Richard. “The Alpha and Omega of Catharsis.” Unpublished Work in Progress, 2004.

Thin Red Line. Dir. Terrence Malick. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 1998.

Tregaskis, Richard. Guadalcanal Diary. NYC: Random House, NY 1953.

Weiser, Elizabeth M. “Burke and War: Rhetoricizing the Theory of Dramatism.” Rhetoric Review 26 (2007): 286-302.

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"Ad Verbum Purgandum or Literally Purgation; by Cem Zeytinoglu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Social Identity as Grammar and Rhetoric of Motives: Citizen Housewives and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

Tara Lynne Clapp, Iowa State University


Literature is not only equipment for living, but equipment for social organization. In this paper, I propose the construct of a ‘social identity’ to name a grammatical interpretation of the world that is used rhetorically in social organization, identification and division. The worldview of the ‘citizen’ in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is an identity for organizing against contamination, came to life through the media, and has been activated in the environmental justice movement. First published in 1962, Silent Spring was an attack on the large scale use of pesticides and herbicides without regard for ecological consequences. The war on insects is a war against our own bodies. Through an innovative ecological application of the pastoral, Silent Spring created ambiguity in the boundary between the ecological scene and the (scene)-agent of the housewife. This ambiguity of substance provides resources for identification between the ecological scene and our ecologically scenic selves. The social identity of Silent Spring was taken up almost immediately in the immediate fight against DDT. Since then, the basic grammar of Silent Spring has been taken up in several characteristic types of environmental activism. I argue that a Citizen Housewife social identity – innovative in its ecological identification – can be traced from Silent Spring through to its uses in local environmental justice organizing. 

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring drew on the familiar resources of cultural pastoral attitudes of a natural order, and redrew the boundary of the natural order at an ecological self that needed to be protected from contamination. In the world of Silent Spring, a Citizen Housewife shared her substance with the natural order, had the legitimacy of rights and knowledge, and she exercised political agency. This identity resonated in political and social life, and created an identification for social action. In this paper, I trace the adoption and use of a Citizen Housewife identity in the environmental justice movement over time.
First published in 1962, Silent Spring was an attack on the large scale use of pesticides and herbicides. Pesticides had been used without due regard for their interrelated effects on natural ecosystems and human health. Building on a clear and involving introduction to ecology and natural systems, Silent Spring shows how the supposedly safe use of pesticides and herbicides causes harm at every level of organization of life, from the cell to the ecosystem. The war on insects is a war against our own bodies.

Silent Spring created a social identity – a grammatical interpretation of the world that has been used rhetorically in social organization, identification and division. A Burkean social identity is the intersection of the Grammar of Motives and the Rhetoric of Motives. As ideal organizations of a dramatistic world, social identities can be analyzed in the terms of the Grammar for the way they structure the world and place motivations. Insofar as these grammatical ‘philosophies’ are taken up by various social groups as rhetorically constitutive and distinctive, they function as potential grounds of identification and distinction, supplying a rhetoric of consubstantiality for understanding, organizing and action.

The world of Silent Spring presents a fully worked out grammar of interpretation crafted for a particular situation in the world. The central pastoral scene-agent ratio identifies the good agent with the scene, and motivates action against contamination (Burke GOM 1945/1969, p. 7-9).[1] A complex and beautiful world of life – the well-known ‘small town in America’ is threatened by an evil that silences the birds and eventually brings disease, mutation and death to people. The sources of this evil are eventually located in the motivations of agency – the simple and brutal chemicals of war – seeking new applications. They are aided by ineffective and arrogant regulators and corporately funded science. Housewives and a few perceptive jurists and scientists must work against this rain of death that is promulgated by narrow-minded and arrogant regulators and pesticide scientists. The agency of the good housewives that care about their own small worlds are the agencies of citizens – letter-writing and political organization.

The key innovation in Carson’s use of the familiar environmental pastoral is in the ambiguity of the boundary between the ecological scene and the (scene)-agent of the housewife. Our bodies, our cells, our reproductive capacities are one with the environment that is threatened. This ambiguity of substance provides resources for motivation through identification.
The interpretive resources provided by Silent Spring were immediately useful in the situation in the world. Silent Spring rang true, and explained the inexplicable in a host of nuclear and chemical post-war situations, from Strontium-90 in breast milk in New York to the horrors of the unwise use of thalidomide. The media event that followed the release of Silent Spring was unprecedented. The chemical industry orchestrated a counter attack, but the furor was not contained.

The social identity of Silent Spring was taken up almost immediately in the immediate and partially successful fight against DDT. The political reaction included a Congressional investigation, and widespread support for greater environmental regulation. The identity of Silent Spring provided resources for many kinds of environmental organizing and action.

The social identity of Silent Spring has since been taken up in several characteristic types of environmental activism. Along with the more responsible regulation of pesticides, the social identity of Silent Spring can also be seen in the organizing and activism that led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the immediate aftermath, the organizing identity of the Natural Resources Defense Fund was established as a defensive body using rights-based and legal agencies. The identity is visible in attenuated form in toxic chemicals regulation and in opposition to official ‘claims to safety’ of industrial foods. The social identity is a resource for many kinds of organizing against a host of technological hazards to our bodies and environment.

In this paper I trace one rhetorical lineage of the Citizen Housewife identity from literature to life: the Citizen Housewife as it is used and interpreted over time in environmental justice social movements. The social identity explains the territory at stake, and the sources of threats. The social identity also explains the special legitimacy of women, why claims to safety should not be trusted, and what forms of agency are available to the politically disempowered. The identity also helps to explain the attacks from scientific and regulatory identities, as predictably gendered and predictably attacking the focus on the local territory. The social identity can be taken up differently, at times as a ‘consubstantial’ identification, and at times as an identifying device. For those ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, the social identity helps audiences to characterize situation and to recognize new instances of the identity.

Social Identity

I developed a Burkean concept of social identity to link the Grammar and the Rhetoric in public discourse. A social identity is an interpretive form that is available for rhetorical use, a set of terministic resources that interpret and explain the motives of a potential situation and recommend forms of action in acting-together. The form can be translated from ‘literature’ to life as the appropriate situation arises. A social identity can function as a constitutive and distinctive rhetoric that allows adherents to organize and that can be seen as distinctive by adherents and by outsiders.

The Grammar of Motives investigates the ‘philosophies’ of explanations of the world in their ideal forms. The language of the Grammar is a language of systems of ideas, without users or opponents. Dramatistic analysis after the Grammar allows us to understand the ‘internal logic’ of an explanation or a system of ideas. The key term in the Grammar is ‘form’. Every system of thought or ‘philosophy’ has its characteristic formal structure of motivations (Burke GOM 1945/1969).

A social identity is first a dramatistic form: a constellation of identity, knowledge, goals and purposes, and modes of action. A social identity is structured from a perspective and a worldview, a position in the world and a way of looking at the world. The form explains actions in dramatistic context, by concepts of the identities, abilities, agencies and purposes in relation to the scene and other actors (Burke GOM 1945/1969).

For symbol-using animals in the ‘Scramble’ of the ‘Human Barnyard’ (Burke ROM 1950/1969, p. 23), the forms of language are part of our interpretive equipment. We translate between situations or generalize among them using form. Form helps us to recognize what kind of a situation we find ourselves in. In this way literary forms are applied in social action (Burke CS 1931/1968; Burke PLF 1941/1973). At the same time, forms help us to understand what we should do and what we are capable of doing (Burke CS 1931/1968; Frye 1957/1990). Particular social identities can be dramatistically described through form, ways of naming, and metaphors.
We can imagine systems of thought that exist at any one time as a literature without an audience. A particular social identity may have no current application to any situation, may have no living adherent. Yet, these forms of interpretation exist, ready for use by a new adherent encountering a new situation that requires interpretation. These are the resources of ‘literature’. Their use in a particular wrangle by a particular group is the application of literature as ‘equipment for living’ (Burke PLF 1941/1973).

Carson crafted a social identity through Silent Spring to help her audiences interpret a new situation of chemical threat. In order to connect with that audience, Carson drew on shared resources of form and interpretation. Silent Spring generalizes from past forms, from old and existing literatures, to offer a new interpretive form. Silent Spring creates an audience that understands what kind of situation this is, what is it that we need to know, and what is it that needs to be done, and by whom. In the world of Silent Spring, a social identity is fully articulated.

Social identities are unlikely to be permanently constitutive of an individual’s self-identity. An individual may use a given social identity to ‘see things differently’ (Anderson 2007, p. 6-7). The perspective offered through the adoption of a social identity may result in a permanent conversion. However, a rhetorical consubstantiality that allows an acting-together in the public realm does not require a full transformation of the self-identity claimed by the individual – except in relation to the shared situation.

In public life, we draw upon this interpretive equipment, this vocabulary of form, to understand where we are in relation to others, as in the Rhetoric of Motives. We may identify with others or define ourselves as alienated from them. As we use socially available words to define ourselves, we draw on a vocabulary of available identities or perspectives in relation to a situation. Our identities are socially defined (Burke ROM 1950/1969).

Our vocabularies of social identities function as organizing devices for both adherents and opponents. A familiar social identity allows an adherent to understand their own position in the world, and to be understood by others as representing a position that is understandable. Social identities allow social organization. Externally, social identities function as ‘stereotypes’ that allow those external to the social identity to recognize, understand and categorize the identity.

A given social identity will draw on existing interpretive resources, including literary forms, and use these to construct a worldview and an identity in relation to a problem or situation. This constellation of interpretation can then be traced as it is used by others in subsequent situations.

The Grammar of Motives of Silent Spring: the Ecological Scene/Agent

Silent Spring represents reverence for life in all its variety and complexity; pesticides are simple and brutal. Life ought to be revered and respected; there is much that is unknowable and uncontrollable in an ecological order. Profit and the domination of life ought not to be the overarching goals of society. The pesticide problem is a manifestation of a larger societal problem; the narrow-minded simplifications of a technological society. We, the good agents, must claim the powers of citizenship and wrest control away from the technological agents of a war against our own bodies.

The social identity created in Silent Spring aligns humans with the natural through ecology. Silent Spring realigns the boundaries of the familiar pastoral. Rather than locating the good in the rural or the wild, Silent Spring locates the good in an ecological scene. The scene of ecology includes earth, water, life and our bodies in cycles of life. This realignment is accomplished through metaphor, scientific evidence, and institutional critique. Through form, contrast, terminology, and perspective, the world is organized into an identification with an ecological, natural, domestic, and feminine “We” and alienation from an institutional, foreign, commercial, militaristic, and masculine “They” (Harris 2000).[2]

The Scene/Agent Ratio: Pastoral Motivations/Innovations in Silent Spring

Silent Spring places an ecologically involved Citizen Housewife – along with certain wise ecologists, perceptive jurists and a few responsible scientists – in a world that ought to be free of contamination by toxic chemicals. This world is threatened from several quarters by foreign and militaristic toxic chemicals, the agencies of commerce, industrial agriculture, and arrogant regulators (Lutts 1985). A pastoral boundary between the world of good and the sphere of evil is drawn not between the rural and the urban, but between an ecological-human body and the institutions, commercial and regulatory, that poison us.

Through an overall pastoral frame, the good characteristics of actors are related to the good characteristics of the scene. The scene-agent ratio is characteristic both of the pastoral form and of environmental writings in general, and relates the motivations of agents to the environmental scene.[3] The pastoral is a form of rejection; the sphere of the good must reject the sphere of evil (Buell 1995; Burke CS 1931/1968).

In the pastoral, the good identity of agents is related to the good character of the scene (Buell 1995; Burke CS 1931/1968; Williams 1973). The first chapter of Silent Spring is a fable that begins with a pastoral image of rural harmony. Initially, the fable proposes an interwoven pastoral harmony between a domestic, rural, agricultural human world and the environment.

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. ... Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half-hidden in the mists of the fall mornings… (Carson 1962, p. 1-3).

In making use of the pastoral, Silent Spring is both echoing and recommending its interpretive frame.

As a scheme of symbolization, in the pastoral form there is “a preference for the apparently ‘simple’ world of ‘nature’ ... over the complicated life of ‘civilization.’”(Scheese 1996). The pastoral form is a longstanding cultural form, and appears in Roman literature (Williams 1973). Originally, the pastoral scene was rural and agricultural. In the pastoral, the good scene is the setting for the good life. In American literary traditions, the pastoral form has been important in the identity of American exceptionalism, along with nature writing and earlier environmental writings (Marx 1964; Smith 1950/1970). The pastoral scene is given its good character through a divine or natural order: a scene with purpose. The character of the actors is related to the character of the scene (Buell 1995; Burke ATH 1937/1984; Marx 1964; Smith 1950/1970; Williams 1973).

The pastoral form embodies an attitude of rejection. In the traditional pastoral, civilized or urban society is the shadow that gives pastoral narrative its attitude of rejection or refusal. The evils of society are rejected through the imposition of a boundary (Buell 1995; Burke CS 1931/1968; Williams 1973). The location of the boundaries between the scene of good and the scene of evil are important since the characters of agents are related to the scene. The hierarchy of order equates the natural with the good, the good characters gain their qualities from the scene. The purpose of the pastoral agent is to maintain or defend this natural order, against civilizing or urban forces of corruption.

As the symbolic boundary has typically been placed between the urban and the rural, and later between the wild and the social, the pastoral has traditionally not been a critique that can illuminate the interdependencies between the two scenes, and the source of economic and social orders is at best ambiguous. The pastoral has drawn on a past that never was, and been blind to and supportive of social institutions of inequality and their rural linkages and interdependencies. Property relationships have been one of those institutions; in the pastoral these were right and proper and should have been defended. But through the pastoral we have typically mourned a social/natural order of domination (Burke ATH 1937/1984; Buell 1995; Williams 1973).

In American frontier and wilderness pastorals, the boundaries of the preserve of the good have excluded (white) humans, except as observers of the divine or natural order. Human/European society is necessarily corrupt. An agent can visit the divine order that is located in the wild, but he cannot become part of the order (Buell 1995; Marx 1964; Smith 1950/1970).

In American pastorals, the ‘scene of the good’ that had to be protected has been aligned with the natural, bringing the feminine into the equation of terms. The feminine, the inviolable, and the virginal had begun to be aligned early in the industrial age. Similarly in American wilderness pastorals, these gendered boundaries should have been inviolable. In order to protect and defend a virginal feminine nature against a seemingly inevitable ruination, we must maintain the boundaries of the natural against the trespasses of (masculine) human society – against persons (Baym 1981; Buell 1995; Kolodny 1975; Williams 1973).

In Silent Spring, the boundaries of the pastoral are realigned to relate an ecological wild to an ecological human body through a feminine order of nature, physical process and reproduction. The innovation in Silent Spring was to draw the boundary of natural inviolability at the molecular, cellular, biological and reproductive levels – the levels of the body. The pastoral alignment between the scene and the agents uses femininity as a common property; both are gendered as feminine. A permeable, natural body with a place in natural cycles and in the eternal reproductive order is primarily feminine. The human body is identified with the natural world. Carson’s ecological pastoral incorporates the “common salad bowl,” the garden, the housewife, her sense of hygiene and her concern for reproduction into the world of natural order.

Manmade poisons threaten the natural body and the natural order. This agency of war crosses the pastoral boundary through the actions of the guilty: chemical corporations, public agencies, and financially captured scientists. The source of the threat to the feminine ecological purity through contamination is “man’s arrogance” writ large through technological agency.

The contrasts between the ecological world and its rightful ecological occupants are established through metaphor and terminology. The natural world is described in ecological terms, and in terms that emphasize feminine concepts such as cycles, fabrics, weaving, wisdom, and light. Complexity and diversity are stressed.

The transformation of matter into energy in the cell is an ever-flowing process, one of nature’s cycles of renewal, like a wheel endlessly turning. ... The changes are made in an orderly fashion … each step directed and controlled by an enzyme of so specialized a function that it does this one thing and nothing else. ... (Carson 1962 p. 200-1).

Contrasts between shortsighted technological contamination and the delicate and complex natural world are used frequently. This contrasts a feminine humanity in cellular, biological, reproductive, and domestic terms against a masculine humanity in militaristic, regulatory, political, and technological terms. “Babies in the womb” and “mother’s milk” are contaminated by poisonous weapons (Glotfelty 2000).

Reverential descriptions of ecological complexity explain the hierarchy of natural order. The brutality of harm to the natural order shows the evils wrought by contamination: squirrels, robins, cats and humans in postures of painful death. Persistently, Carson contrasts an attitude of reverence and wonder that infuses her explanations of the complexity, interconnectedness and evolved orders in the living world with attitudes of anger, pain, impatience and sarcasm that color her explanations of the destructive workings of poisonous chemicals and the carelessness of their use.

The current vogue for poisons has failed utterly to take into account these most fundamental considerations. As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life -- a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and capable of striking back in unexpected ways. The extraordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no ‘high-minded orientation,’ no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper (Carson 1962, p. 297).

The evidence of harm is contrasted with official claims to safety. Carson shows that the official claims are made in the absence of knowledge, in the absence of appropriate research funding, and sometimes against existing evidence of harm.

Contamination is an evil in itself, a transgression and a source of guilt whether or not specific health effects are proven in particular cases.

These sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes -- nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil -- all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides’ but ‘biocides’ (Carson 1962, p. 7-8).

The consequences of not protecting the inviolability of the ecological scene/agent are apocalyptic.

Silent Spring takes up the pastoral attitudes that equate the natural with the good and the artificial with the bad, and the pastoral feeling that equates character with scene. Politically, this ecological pastoral can provide a far more penetrating critique of economic and social institutions than the wilderness pastoral can be. In the ecological pastoral humans have a place in the natural order. The natural order is not determined solely by location, but by a connectivity of shared ecological origin, changing the terms of substance from placement to ancestry (Burke GOM 1945/1969, p. 24-29).

As the pastoral boundaries of the good include humans -- children, mothers and farm workers -- the boundaries enable a social critique. Those most exposed to harm have the least political voice and the least economic benefit from the intensification of industrial technologies. The overall effect is a call to protective action by and for good people. This order does not preclude humans from a place in the good; it precludes contamination of humans.

An incomprehensible evil has fallen into the scene. In the introductory fable – into the “town in the heart of America” – poison falls out of the sky without any purposive connection to the humans in the pastoral scene, a transgression of the pastoral boundary. The conclusion that “the people had done it themselves” (Carson 1962, p. 3) inspires guilt without explaining the action. Somehow, ‘the people’ have brought disorder, death and evil into the good scene. The evil is eventually explained. The source of toxic chemicals is narrow institutions, narrow worldviews, and economically driven decision-making.

The sphere of evil is dominated by specialists, regulators, and corporations; these act as a coalition (Harris 2000). This coalition systematically ignores or avoids examination of the consequences of its actions on the natural world and discounts the ethos of citizens and their cares. The coalition is sometimes scene, sometimes agent, and chemicals are their agency. As scene, the coalition is the temper of the times, as “This is an era of specialists ... an era dominated by industry ...” (Carson 1962, p. 13). Also as scene, the ‘ecology’ of the coalition is given its generative substance by the excess agencies of war.

All this has come about because of the sudden rise and prodigious growth of an industry for the production of man-made or synthetic chemicals with insecticidal properties. This industry is a child of the Second World War. ... The result has been a seemingly endless stream of synthetic insecticides. ... (Carson 1962, p. 16).
As the scene for the action, the industry is an offspring of war, which grows prodigiously. But the situation is also populated by agents that act.
The crusade to create a chemically sterile, insect-free world seems to have engendered a fanatic zeal on the part of many specialists and most of the so-called control agencies. On every hand there is evidence that those engaged in spraying operations exercise a ruthless power. ... The most flagrant abuses go unchecked in both state and federal agencies (Carson 1962, p. 12).
Here the problem is caused by bad agents with ‘fanatical zeal’ and ‘ruthless power’ in the context of ‘state and federal agencies’ that are themselves both agents and scenes.

The Good Agents

Transgression of the ecological boundaries introduces guilt and motivations action in the world of Silent Spring. In the opening pastoral scene, “the people had done it themselves” (Carson 1962, p. 3). The victims of contamination can and must act to stop it. As these agents partake in the identity of the natural world, they are feminine and ecological. The agency of these agents must work within the terms of a gendered agency.

The authorial voice is a primary agent of the social identity of Silent Spring. Supporting the pastoral boundaries and contrasts, the authorial voice in Silent Spring is gendered as feminine. This gendering, as both representation and performance, is accomplished through tone, formal association, and an acceptably feminine approach to evidence (Jehlen 1995, p. 265-266). Our identification with the authorial voice or our alienation from it is key to our ability to adopt the social identity of the text.

In representing a public and speaking femininity, Carson faced the same rhetorical problem that women rhetors had faced before her. She needed to represent the narrative voice as sufficiently and acceptably feminine while speaking in public, which was itself an incongruous activity in this gendering.

In the context of the early 1960s, crafting a voice that was both acceptable and authoritative while also feminine depended on resolving several contradictions (Campbell and Jerry 1988; Campbell 1973). While using the equation of femininity with the natural as a resource, the authorial voice also needed to express anger, authority, and political agency.

The authorial voice in Silent Spring resolves the contradiction in acceptability between femininity and anger through tone. The incongruity between femininity and authority is resolved through the use of quotations and attributions. At the same time, this contradiction is also challenged through the use of quotations from women, often represented as housewives. Similarly, the contradiction between femininity and the agency of citizenship is challenged by the representations of women-as-agents within the text as well as by the text itself as the product of a woman (Campbell 1973).

The tone that later critics called ‘overemotional’ and ‘hysterical’ is most often clipped and tight-lipped, a lady taking offense. One example of this clipped tone is in her reference to the exclusion of the right not to be poisoned from the Bill of Rights, “surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem” (Carson 1962, p. 13). The tone deepens into sarcasm:

Our attitude toward poisons has undergone a subtle change. Once they were kept in containers marked with skull and crossbones; the infrequent occasions of their use were marked with utmost care that they should come in contact with the target and with nothing else. With the development of the new organic insecticides and the abundance of surplus planes after the Second World War, all this was forgotten. Although today’s poisons are more dangerous than any known before, they have amazingly become something to be showered down indiscriminately from the skies (Carson 1962, 155-6).

The change she reports is hardly ‘subtle.’ The tone of voice is reserved and ladylike, as ladylike as one can be in such a situation.

The acceptance of the social identity of Silent Spring depended on the acceptability of the character of its authorial voice, as a woman representing science. The trustworthiness of this voice is established formally by careful presentation of evidence. The overall structure of the text is a claim to reasonableness through the use of an expository and scientific form. As well, in resolving the contradiction in acceptability between femininity and holding strong opinions, the feminine authorial voice defers to the voice of good experts, and to the voices of others. Formally, this deference is represented by the use of extensive quotations. At the same time that the use of quotations claims standing and authority for others, this usage appears to defer to the voices of others in a collaboration (Campbell and Jerry 1998; Dow and Tonn 1993).[4]

The authorial voice defers to the voices of experts; the layers of attribution can be complex. To preface her explanation of cancer causation, the authorial voice explains:

When this question is put to Dr. Heuper, whose years of distinguished work in cancer make his opinion one to respect, his reply is given with the thoughtfulness of one who has pondered it long, and has a lifetime of research and experience behind his judgment. Dr. Heuper believes ... (Carson 1962, p. 240).

The feminine authorial voice is careful to present her evidence and her authority as if solely in representation of the opinions of a known and usually male expert. Her reticence to claim her own authority is crafted so as to minimize the appearance of a woman speaking out of turn.

And yet, the direct voices to which the authorial voice defers are often presented as those of housewives. These quotations claim a right to speak for housewives, who are simultaneously presented as having expertise as “seasoned observers.” The direct quotations themselves also recommend action, and implicitly and explicitly suggest letter writing as an appropriate action for housewives to take.

From the town of Hinsdale, Illinois, a housewife wrote in despair to one of the world’s leading ornithologists ....

Here in our village the elm trees have been sprayed for several years {she wrote in 1958}. ... After several years of DDT spray, the town is almost devoid of robins and starlings; chickadees have not been on my shelf for two years, and this year the cardinals are gone too; ...

It is hard to explain to the children that the birds have been killed off, when they have learned in school that a Federal law protects the birds from killing or capture. ... The elms are still dying, and so are the birds. Is anything being done? Can anything be done? Can I do anything? (Carson 1962, p. 103, quoting).

While using ‘direct’ evidence to describe a problem, this use of a housewife quotation embodies a claim that housewives ought to have standing to speak, that their voices ought to be heard. Within the text, this kind of quotation serves both as evidence of harm and a model of identity, agency and action. Women as citizens should write letters. For those who identify with this housewife and the birds she cares about, it recommends action.

The coalition that threatens us with contamination involves regulators and governments. The agents in the world of Silent Spring must claim their identity as citizens. Citizens need to write letters against toxic chemicals, support ecological research, and reject contamination of their world. Adherents of this social identity need to claim their rightful role as citizens, their right to speak and their right to know.

The social identity of Silent Spring names the problem and what to do about it, and creates potential selves that share this familial ecological substance. We need to take political action to protect our selves and our world, like the ecological citizens and scientists of Silent Spring. We need to reclaim our authority from the chemical and agricultural industries and from the irresponsible and ignorant regulators, some of whom are in the pockets of the chemical industry.

Silent Spring as Social Identity: Resonance and Resource at Publication

In order for a particular grammar from literature to function in the world as a social identity, it must achieve several things. The new interpretation must resonate with the situation in the world, addressing some discomfort or recalcitrance in existing interpretations. The new interpretation must draw on existing cultural forms in order to be recognizable. To be a recognizable identity for both the organization of identification and division, the new identity must be widely represented in the media of social life.

The grammar of Silent Spring resonated with many current news stories. The worldview of the text and its authorial voice yielded a perspective that made sense of several stories of contamination. These stories of contamination - with chemicals, with the byproducts of nuclear testing, and with pesticides – needed a new explanation. The grammar of Silent Spring gave voice to a new discomfort with the cultural faith in technological progress and faith in corporate and governmental authority.

My argument is that the social identity of Silent Spring became widely available in the culture as a resource for organizing social action. The ecological and politically active Citizen Housewife – and those that organize against her – must then be able to recognize her whether or not they have read the book. For this persona to spring into political life, she and her opponents must be widely recognizable. Potential adherents must be able to recognize ‘what kind of situation this is’ and to lay blame and take action accordingly. The opponents of the social identity of Silent Spring and of later organizing also continue to use similar epithets and defenses.

The publication of Silent Spring, serialized in magazine form and then released in book form, created a considerable and widespread commotion. The book was a best seller. Its publication was treated as an event in various media including the new medium of television. Silent Spring and its author were vehemently and vociferously attacked by the chemical industry and by some scientists. Silent Spring had an almost immediate political impact, leading to hearings on pesticide regulation and increased funding for pesticide research (Dunlap 1981; Graham 1970; Lear 1997).

It is perhaps surprising that a book on toxic chemicals and cancer would be greeted with such attention. Carson was well known as a nature writer, and Silent Spring is beautifully and gracefully written. However in understanding the furor surrounding the publication of Silent Spring, the context of its exigency must be understood. As well, the widespread attention afforded to Silent Spring was a marker of how well the book connected with its audience through form and metaphor. The book drew on existing interpretive resources in presenting its thorough condemnation of the systemic power of the agricultural and chemical industries and their regulators.  The combination of the exigency and the skillful use of interpretive resources helped make Silent Spring resonate with its audiences and draw counterattacks from its detractors.

The publication of Silent Spring struck a chord of popular suspicion with new chemicals and new technologies. Along with Cold War prosperity, there was an undercurrent of what might be called Cold War angst. Large scale public pesticide spraying programs had met some resistance in some regions of the United States. The fire ant program in the south, in particular, had already met with considerable citizen opposition including the governor of Louisiana himself. Spraying programs on Long Island, in New Jersey and in Massachusetts had also met with growing citizen opposition (Andrews 2000; Bosso 1987; Lutts 1985).

There had also been a great deal of publicity when the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against the possible contamination of cranberries with the herbicide amniatriazole in 1959, just prior to the holiday season (Andrews 2000; Wang 1997). Publicity surrounding the cranberry warnings had brought chemical risks to the public table. The Food and Drug Administration was also responding to the then-recent Delaney Amendment that prohibited the addition of carcinogens to food. Later findings had cleared the cranberry supply, but the consumption of cranberries was far below normal levels that year.

Silent Spring also resonated with the other ‘chemical story’ of 1962. Reporting of the horrific effects of thalidomide had come to public notice just as Silent Spring was being released in serial form (Dunlap 1981; Graham 1970, p. 50). As well, the appearance of Strontium 90 in the milk supply had been announced through the newspapers (Andrews 2000). Public attitudes towards new technologies in general and nuclear technologies in particular had been darkened by a growing awareness of the effects of nuclear fallout on human health (Dunlap 1981; Lutts 1985).

The stage had been set for a new and encompassing explanation for these events - previously disparate but disturbing. Silent Spring captured and gave focus to public concern over new technologies. The book made use of the specific concern over nuclear fallout through the comparison of the risks and effects of chemical pesticides with fallout and through the metaphorical equation of pesticides with weaponry, drawing on existing metaphors (Lutts 1985; Russell 1996).

Silent Spring made metaphorical and interpretive connections between various kinds of contamination. In naming the situation, Silent Spring featured the threat of contamination and set it in the context of a larger explanation. In the face of growing suspicion and a growing record of technological harm, the pastoral attitudes of Silent Spring struck a chord.

In constructing the social identity of Silent Spring, Carson was able to present a coherent interpretation of a new situation using many familiar existing interpretive resources in innovative ways. Her interpretive innovations were successful at least in part because they involved realignments and adjustments of widely accepted interpretations. In making use of familiar interpretations to structure a new worldview, Silent Spring was able to attract adherents to see the world according to its perspective.

As this perspective prescribed an increased activism from a new ecological citizenry, it also demanded a response from the adherents of the social identity it attacked. The chemical industry organized a media campaign. The media presence of the debate over Silent Spring helped this social identity to become a recognizable identity for organizing through identification.

The New York Times called the event that was Silent Spring the ‘Noisy Summer’ (Graham 1970). The event began even before the release of Silent Spring in serial and then in book form. On one side of the debate, Carson created a network of scientific collaborators through the process of her years of research. On the other side, chemical corporations developed strategies of defense. The chemical corporation Velsicol threatened both the magazine and book publishers with lawsuits (Brooks 1972; Graham 1970; Lear 1997).

The release of Silent Spring was followed almost immediately by a public relations attack by large chemical companies, beginning with Velsicol and later involving a coalition of corporations. This program involved the publication and distribution of informational brochures. Monsanto published an article called “The Desolate Year” picturing a world without pesticides. As well, economic entomologists and other pesticide researchers spoke out against Silent Spring. Scathing reviews were published in trade magazines, science, and engineering journals and in magazines with broader circulation, such as Time (Dunlap 1981; Graham 1970; Lear 1997; Matthiessen and Sancton 1999; Stauber and Rampton 1996).

As a broad cultural event, Silent Spring took place through the public media of newspapers, magazines, journals, and television. Two CBS broadcasts were influential in public perception of the issues. The second was broadcast nationally in April of 1963 as “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.” The program included a debate between Rachel Carson and a scientist from American Cyanamid. These broadcasts framed a public image of Rachel Carson in relation to the scientist. Public reaction to the show seemed to favor Carson by a wide margin. The identity of Carson as calm, reserved, and insistent only on ‘better knowledge’ had greater appeal to the audience than the identity of the scientist.

The scientist represented himself as an authority, represented pesticide interests as public interests, and claimed the issue for the realms of expert knowledge. He also seemed far less calm than Carson, casting doubt on the character of those who had termed Carson hysterical. In the light of circumstances, it had become difficult “to defend pesticides by evoking the authority of the expert” (Wang 1997). Reaction to these broadcasts was “like a second printing of Silent Spring,” as far as they captured public attention (Lear 1997; McCay 1993). Book sales rose. The media event created social images of identity with wider circulation and a different kind of generality than did Silent Spring as a book.

The Kennedy administration gave the Life Science subcommittee of the President’s Science Advisory Council (PSAC) the task of investigating the claims of Silent Spring, the safety of pesticides, and their regulation. While other government agencies were perceived as dominated by chemical and pesticide interests, the PSAC was perceived as disinterested. The PSAC had investigated the ‘cranberry crisis,’ whichwas seen as a similar situation (Dunlap 1981; Graham 1970; Wang 1997).

The PSAC report of March 1963, was taken as vindication of the documentation and many of the conclusions of Silent Spring. It recommended tighter governmental control and regulation of pesticides and the eventual elimination of persistent pesticides, DDT in particular. However, the recommendations of the PSAC report were largely unimplemented. While the PSAC report had relatively strong administrative support and some support in Congress, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture objected to the conclusions of the report. Both agencies were concerned that the report might raise concerns with the safety of the national food supply both domestically and internationally (Bosso 1987; Dunlap 1981; Wang 1997).

While the PSAC report lent legitimacy to Carson’s arguments in Silent Spring, it narrowed the framing of the problem. Silent Spring had criticized the fundamental sources of contamination in human society and the involuntary risks to cells, genes and ecosystems. While Silent Spring had attacked a whole range of persistent chemicals and an attitude to life, the regulatory debate over the elimination of persistent pesticides narrowed initially to DDT itself. In later Senate hearings, the debate narrowed further and the burden of proof was shifted from proving safety to proving harm.

In attenuated form, and through further hearings, the claims of Silent Spring were dampened to technical questions. Immediate threats to public safety that could be directly attributable to pesticides were dealt with in accordance with available research, scientific institutions and regulatory norms. The burden of proof was shifted back on scientifically proven harm rather than proven safety under conditions of suspicion.

The immediate controversy over Silent Spring was incorporated into political institutions as a problem of the regulation of pesticides. The philosophical position of Silent Spring was not, and could not be, addressed by the better regulation of pesticides. The framework of the pesticide critique rests on a much larger critique of technological society, economic decision-making, and claims about the proper role of humans in nature. For example, Silent Spring suggested an ecological approach to agriculture rather than large-scale monocultures. Not only would this reduce the need for pesticides, it would embody human respect for natural processes and subordinate the profit motive to the desire to live in harmony with the natural order.

Some historians have emphasized the genuine concerns of the coalitions of interest against Silent Spring: agri-business, economic entomologists, and other supporters of modern science without direct financial ties to the chemical industry. As a whole, these coalitions felt that agricultural chemicals such as DDT were essential to modern agriculture and safe when applied properly. Silent Spring, it was felt, was irrational and reactionary. The latter group -- supporters of modern science -- reacted to the critique of modern technology, progress, and the institutions of scientific and regulatory authority (Dunlap 1981; Hynes 1989). As Silent Spring drew on the growing distrust of new technologies and official reassurances, this group felt the threat to scientific progress, to the authority of science in society and to modern civilization itself. This authority, they felt, was properly theirs. Silent Spring claimed that authority for ‘housewives’ and other citizens.

Silent Spring as Equipment for a Right to Know Identity

While the furor over Silent Spring was partially contained through existing political and scientific institutions, it had and continues to have influence in the environmental movement. Its themes continued to be presented and promoted by environmental groups, as ‘equipment for living’ that can be used to suitably interpret each new unnamed malaise and to frame meaningful action (Burke CS 1968, 31; Burke PLF 1973).

One of the earliest and still influential identities that makes use of the identity of Silent Spring is the identity of the citizen, claiming standing to speak and the attendant Right to Know. This legalistic and rights-based identity is featured in Silent Spring as a core image. It has been mobilized against the control that industry is seen as having over regulators.

This identity draws on the legalistic, citizen based claims in the text of Silent Spring. Citizens gain legitimacy from their status as citizens, and the perspective this brings. Citizens are not subject to the claims of special interests nor to the arrogance and narrowness of specialists. Rather, they are more qualified than experts to judge the risks of pesticides. Citizens have a claim to legitimacy based on rights that outweighs the claims of experts. The constitutional status of citizens as well as their status as the bearers of risk both contribute to the larger importance of citizens than ‘industry’ or the ‘insect controllers’ and their calculations.

In the first years, a Right To Know identity was mobilized in the fight against DDT. It embodies the claim that citizens should have standing and the right to speak. Their central opponents were regulators and their expert postures. In this social identity, legal and regulatory institutions must be reformed to grant proper standing to citizens. In the Right To Know identity, as in Silent Spring, the value of science is ambivalent (Harris 2000). Citizens must mobilize good science, featuring ecological understanding and environmental causation, against bad science that features narrow and individualistic ideas of causation. Initially, this citizen identity is represented by masculine means and actors and makes greater use of traditionally masculine pursuits such as science.

An identity that organizes around the status of citizen recommends citizen forms of agency. That is, when one sees oneself acting primarily as a citizen, one uses the means or agencies that are in accordance with this identity. For Right to Know citizens, public fora and legal avenues of action should be and were used against pesticides. In relating the history of the eventual successful ban of DDT, a small group of lawyers working against the use of DDT in Minnesota used the forum of the courts to present their claims (Dunlap 1981). Their claims featured ‘good’ scientific evidence against DDT by taking an ecological perspective to present risks to human health and ecological systems. These citizens worked to expose the dangers of contamination and addressed the environmental causation of health problems due to DDT. This group organized itself into the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that continues to mobilize a citizen identity and use the courts as a forum to argue against the regulatory discourse of balancing of costs and risks and a still-pervasive individual approach to causation.

This social identity also sees the reform of legal and regulatory institutions as an important avenue for action. Using many of the same resources as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council also mobilizes a citizen identity through judicial channels against the regulatory, ameliorative discourse. They too have a legalistic, mandamus emphasis, stressing the duty of protection. The Natural Resources Defense Council takes credit for having citizen standing incorporated into the Clean Water Act (NRDC 2001). This provision institutionalizes a right to speak into an institutional form.

The Citizen Housewife: A Social Identity in Action

Initially, the social identity of Silent Spring was adopted by a landslide of letter-writing citizen housewives. Carson and her secretary received thousands of letters after the publication of Silent Spring. These letters reported the health effects of pesticides, and the problems that citizens had had in having their concerns about pesticides and health taken seriously (Hazlett 2004). Many of these letters came from individuals whose concerns about pesticides and their health, or the health of the ecosystems around them, had previously lacked a public voice. Carson herself was limited by her declining health from playing a leading role in the fight to ban some of the clearest chemical villains; she died of breast cancer only eighteeen months after the publication of Silent Spring.

The constellation of terms in the dramatic scene of Silent Spring - scene, actors and their agencies and acts, structured by an overall pastoral attitude of rejection - is distinguished as well by its gendering, use of metaphors and sphere of attention. The ecological agent of Silent Spring may undertake environmental activism indoors, or in urban environments. Sometimes these forms of organizing are not even recognized as environmentalism by those in the more masculine nature-conserving traditions, where the environment is typically outdoors.

In some cases, the social identity of Silent Spring was used in near-complete form to make sense of the world and to motivate social action. In other cases, its use was partial, changing some elements in accordwith a new situation or to recommend different actions. Subsequent groups have made use of the social identity of Silent Spring to structure their interpretations - both because it is a cultural identity with the familiar ring of truth, and in hopes of galvanizing action in a wide audience.

The social identity of Silent Spring has been used primarily against environmental hazards that link clearly to public health. The clearest and most thoroughgoing application of the Silent Spring social identity is in the Citizen Housewife tradition. This tradition has been characterized in previous research in hazardous waste discourse (Williams and Matheny 1995), and as a feminist form of environmental activism in environmental and feminist histories (eg. Gottlieb 1993; Seager 1993).

Citizen Housewife forms of activism enact the threatened ecological body of Silent Spring. One of the most striking images of Silent Spring is that of our intimate connection -- chemical and biological -- with the natural world. The boundaries between ‘people’ and ‘nature’ are made permeable and sometimes invisible. We are threatened, and our selves include our environment. We are threatened against our will and without full knowledge by toxic contamination. This contamination is the dangerous product of economic shortsightedness, narrow worldviews and judgments of relevance, arrogance, and a lack of respect. We must act to refuse this. The agencies that should be responsible are incapable of protecting us from harm.

The social identity of Silent Spring is activated in many situations of ecological threat, such as genetically modified organisms and pesticide residues in food, pollution and technology that affects childrens’ health, and the industrial pollution of water. This identity is most fully employed in the Citizen Housewife tradition of what has come to be known as environmental justice activism. The metaphorical gendering is most thoroughly applied by women. Our bodies are permeably natural, reproductive and feminine. We are threatened in the same way as the soils, water, insects, fish and mammals are threatened, as we share a cellular vulnerability.

The most widely-familiar national media image of the Citizen Housewife identity is Lois Gibbs with her child on her hip, symbolizing the disaster of Love Canal. Local organizing in Love Canal included a national media presence and influence in national Superfund legislation. Since Love Canal, Woburn and other toxic community events, anti-toxic activism developed into the movement known as environmental justice (Andrews 1997; Brown and Mikkelsen 1990; Gottlieb 1993; Krauss 1993; McGurty 2007; Williams and Matheny 1995; Wellin 1996). More typically, the battles have been local.

The movement against hazardous waste and toxic contamination that came to be called environmental justice developed in the 1980s (McGurty 2007). Aspects of race and class added a dimension beyond gender to the power dynamics and claims to legitimacy. Accordingly, the Citizen Housewife social identity has been developed beyond that of Silent Spring. Yet, the Citizen Housewife is still a recognizable social identity within the movement. The Citizen Housewives of environmental justice continue to employ the metaphors of femininity available in Silent Spring to shape claims, agencies, organizing, and purposes. In environmental justice, the Citizen Housewife identity is even more oppositional as it is used against local ecological threats by many otherwise unrelated community groups in grassroots mobilization.

The Citizen Housewife identity of environmental justice is similar to the Citizen Housewife identity as it was in Silent Spring in the structure of feeling and the position of self in the world. The ecological pastoral continues to structure a consubstantial relationship with family and community, a proper freedom from environmental contamination, an attitude of rejection and an explanation of power. This is rounded out with the importance of gender for rightful citizenship.

Toxics from industrial processes or waste provide a similar situation to synthetic pesticides and herbicides. The risk is unknown and may be large, and damage may take considerable time and effort to document. The institutions of science are unprepared and unable to take local effects into account. Those who bear these risks are not those who benefit, nor are they typically those involved in regulatory decisions.

The Citizen Housewife identity of environmental justice and of Silent Spring build on longer traditions in women’s organizing identities. An organizing identity for women had to justify legitimacy and standing internally and externally. In the dominant culture, women were properly housewives, and the proper place of housewives was in the home. The private sphere was their domain. Women had little access to political agency. Their husbands were the public citizens and political actors (Campbell 1995; Hawkesworth 1990).

From the beginning of the 20th century, many women’s groups had organized around two related perspectives that reconciled political activity for women through their role as housewives -- caretakers of the domestic sphere. One enlarged the concept of the domestic sphere, where women were already credited with legitimate authority. Examples include the Municipal Housekeeping movement and the Settlement House movement (Blum 2001; Hoy 1980). The other used the idea of a closer natural connection to care and nurture to necessitate a public role for women; this approach was used in the suffrage movement and the peace movement (Hawkesworth 1990; Swerdlow 1993).

In Silent Spring, the two related claims are joined. Women are naturally related to concerns about reproduction and nurture, through a global domesticity of ecology. Women (should) have a greater responsibility for and a greater legitimacy in decisions that concern the care of their worlds. In environmental justice, the Citizen Housewife continues to build on this combination of rhetorically resonant claims. We who have been excluded should have a claim to a public role through our status as Citizen Housewives, and that the environmental sphere an extension of our domestic sphere. Citizen Housewives have special claims to legitimacy. In their communities, this status goes beyond mere equality.

Womens’ local activism against environmental hazards has been explained using both social and essentialist ideas of maternalism and ecofeminism (Blum 2001; Merchant 1995). From a rhetorical perspective, the nature/culture argument about the source of womens’ identifications with caring, family, community and the environment is less important (Anderson 2007). The claim to greater legitimacy over the fate of one’s community is a persuasive identity for acting-together for communities – and especially for women – threatened by contamination.

The locality-based nature of this activism has been said to build on women’s local social networks and concern over children (Brown and Mikkelson 1990). The Citizen Housewife identity claims special legitimacy over bodies, communities and localities. Citizen Housewives have immediate knowledge; their perception is not limited by an uncaring institutional distance. In this identity, distance from a situation would lessen one’s legitimacy.

The Citizen Housewife identity, and therefore its organizing power, depends in part on an alienation from dominant epistemologies, existing institutions and political organizations. Just as physical distance lessens one’s legitimacy as a Citizen Housewife, so objectivity and emotional distance are not to be trusted. Risks and hazards are taken personally, and much of the ‘objective’ discourse of scientists is discounted. Risks and hazards are threats from ‘outside’ to the ‘inside’ sphere that Citizen Housewives claim as their own.

Citizen Housewives are ambivalent towards science and scientific evidence. On the one hand, science is needed to show the presence of risk or harm. On the other hand, the norms of a science such as epidemiology typically prevent the creation of useful local knowledge where there may be multiple symptoms and disorders and a highly variable population. ‘Science’ and scientists are subject to capture by economic interests. Science can be one of the powerful institutions against which Citizen Housewives organize. In Woburn and in Love Canal, residents and scientists together practiced ‘popular epistemology’ to document harm. Citizen Housewives must balance a need for information with the ethos of science without the moral hazards of excessive objectivity.

Roles as wives and mothers are emphasized in the self-representation of Citizen Housewives (Krauss 1993; Wellin 1996). These roles bring legitimacy as they give actors responsibility for health, reproduction, children, neighbors and the environment. Claims to the properties of citizenship, such as the right to know and the right to speak, are central.

The Citizen Housewife identity is politically ambivalent both for those who use it and for those against whom it is used. An identity as ‘housewife,’ ‘mother’ or ‘woman’ is understood as central to legitimacy and authority by Citizen Housewives. These terms are often used in professional risk assessment literature as emblematic of irrationality and ignorance. From the external perspective of this literature, the resistance to objectivity is represented as self-interest. Citizen Housewife groups are typically minimized and delegitimized with the catch phrase NIMBY (not in my backyard). From within the identity, the ‘backyard’ is the sphere of legitimate action; the answer to NIMBY is “Everybody’s Backyard” (CHEJ n.d.).[5]

The Citizen Housewife identity does include defenses. Just as Silent Spring was written in the expectation of attack from official and corporate sources (Lear 1997), the Citizen Housewife identity incorporates defenses appropriate for their situations. One preventative defense is the presumed discount that should be afforded expert and regulatory discourse. The frequently gendered and racialized discounting of Citizen Housewives and their opinions is also ‘anticipated’ and is an organizing resource. Self-representations of environmental justice activists include narratives of put-downs and discounting by public officials (Wellin 1996); these support and build the identity.  

The Citizen Housewife identity is oppositional in form; effective political and institutional influence is alien to it. This is consistent with the claim that the pastoral is a frame of rejection. The pastoral cannot accommodate acceptance as a dominant form must (Burke ATH 1937/1984). The Citizen Housewife has no way of accommodating the sin of power or the sin of pollution through casuistry. Its use in social cooperation is therefore limited -- by its own terms and by its own success. Political and institutional influence belongs to those against whom the Citizen Housewives organize. While the identity supports coalition-building for wider influence, it does not accommodate ‘necessary evils.’

This is not to say that Citizen Housewife activism has met with no success. Citizen Housewives can be credited with winning many battles. These include federal legislation such as Superfund in 1980, and the Community Right to Know provision instituted in the Superfund Amendments of 1986 against toxic byproducts and hazardous waste (Williams and Matheny 1995). More recently, the federal government adopted a requirement for administrative review of environmental justice impacts. A whole series of local and regional waste treatment facilities have gone unsited.

A Citizen Housewife identity itself cannot become ‘regulatory’ or ‘administrative’ or ‘bureaucratic’ identity as long as the industrial system depends on toxic materials and waste disposal. An individual may ‘cross the contamination line’ and become a regulator, or accept that a certain level of contamination is inevitable given ‘economic realities’, but the Citizen Housewife identity rejects contamination. 


Speakers and selves make use of the resources of social identities in order to interpret a situation, and in order to be understood. The Citizen Housewives of environmental justice activism are understood both characteristically and stereotypically through a socially shared identity that yields the perspective on oneself and the situation for interpreting the situations of environmental injustice.

Like the identities of identity politics, social identities are constrained from overly rapid innovation by the audience demands for expectation and familiarity, not by essential or determined selves. A social identity is an interpretive resource available for use by individuals and for organizing attitudes into political action. Social identities provide a basis for political action – and they may equally constrain political action, through constraining innovation.

A Citizen Housewife identity can be traced ‘through’ Silent Spring. A form of this identity predated Silent Spring, in Municipal Housekeeping and in the natural mothers of the peace and suffrage movements. Through Silent Spring, the Citizen Housewife acquired an ecological identity.

The Citizen Housewife identity and its attitude of rejection would not be tenable for women in positions of power. On the other hand, the identity enables and demands individual political action and organizing.

There are difficulties, both internal and external, with the Citizen Housewife identity. Distrust of official opinions is important and helps give the identity coherence, as is an emphasis on uncertainty. As a Citizen Housewife, there is no way to accommodate or forgive exposures that may be safe. Accordingly there is no consistent way to judge between risks. Many individuals find that they must use other resources to make these judgments.

The political engagement with the larger environmental sphere that the Citizen Housewife identity demands is draining. The Citizen Housewife demands a commitment parallel to one’s family be extended to neighbors, community and environment. It is difficult for the identity to sustain this commitment outside of immediate threat. Once the threat subsides or is perceived as lessening, many Citizen Housewives groups lose members. Within the literature that names Citizen Housewife groups as not-in-my-backyard groups, this feature is often interpreted as parochialism.

There are also applications of Citizen Housewife groups to other situations that are amenable to interpretation through the ‘contamination’ metaphor. The boundaries between ‘purity’ and ‘contamination’ and local claims to greater legitimacy have also been used successfully in local organizing against other facilities such as group homes and even affordable housing. Just as the Citizen Housewife identity has generalized in this way, planners and regulators also generalize, and have created a ‘type’ of facility that includes waste facilities with group homes. These are named as ‘LULUs’ or locally unwanted land uses.

The Citizen Housewife identity within environmental justice is more ambivalent towards science, and more distrustful of institutions of science and regulation than it was in Silent Spring. For one thing, Silent Spring sought to involve a large audience with the environment; accordingly some of its critiques were stated in gentle ways to increase its appeal to ‘common sense.’ For another, some of the concerns represented by Silent Spring have been partially addressed through regulation. For example, pesticide regulation has banned some specific pesticides, and attention has turned to the proper management of wastes. However, these concerns have been addressed in ways that dampen or attenuate the full implications of Silent Spring (Hynes 1989).

The Citizen Housewife identity continues to represent the more systematic critiques of Silent Spring. Our regulatory institutions continue to use utilitarian and statistical approaches to risk and its distribution, in effect denying the importance of both persons and citizens. Our industrial processes continue to be ever more dependent on new and unfamiliar chemicals; 500 to 1000 new chemicals are introduced each year (Kraft 2001). Citizen Housewives see the inherent risk for our selves and our children of environmental contamination by industrial and agricultural chemicals, through industrial and economic institutions of power. For Citizen Housewives, the simplicities of science and the complexities of life mean that testing cannot prove contamination safe for our children or our worlds.

Tara Lynn Clapp is an Assistant Professor in Community and Regional Planning at Iowa State University. She teaches sustainable communities and environmental planning.


  1. A ‘scene-agent ratio’ is a dramatistic equation between the scene and the agent, certain kinds of scenes are the settings for certain kinds of agents. The two may set expectations and provide motivations for each other.
  2. Harris uses a terminological analysis of Self-words and Other words to explain this alignment, rather than a formal analysis.
  3. Not all writings that link scene/environment to agent/character are pastoral. Here the term ‘environmental writings’ is used more broadly than its specific political meaning of the last forty years as ‘environmentalist.’ A link between scene and agent is characteristic of many other ‘environmental’ traditions such as environmental determinism, social Darwinism, and behaviorism, to name a few.
  4. These strategies have been used widely by women rhetors over time. The rhetorical strategies adopted by women rhetors that have come to be seen as the feminine style include using masculine expository styles in combination with feminine presentations of evidence, feminine concerns and personae.
  5. The quarterly newsletter of the Center for Health and Environmental Justice, founded by Lois Gibbs, is called “Everybody’s Backyard. Other frequently used internal terms are NIABY (not in anybody’s backyard), or NOPE (not on planet earth).


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"Social Identity as Grammar and Rhetoric of Motives: Citizen Housewives and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring" by Tara Lynne Clapp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Attitudes Toward Money in Kenneth Burke’s Dialog in Heaven Between The Lord and Satan

David Gore, University of Minnesota Duluth


Attitudes toward the pecuniary are peculiar. One reason we misunderstand money is because it defines and answers to both our animal nature (necessity) and our symbolic nature (property). In this paper I trace the genealogy of Kenneth Burke’s attitudes toward money in the “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” to show how Burke’s logological approach toward money is original and in tension with claims offered by competing, economic attitudes toward money. Money sits forever at the nexus of our animal and symbolic nature because it simultaneously holds the place of value and signifies what we value. By stressing animal limits and symbolic infinity, Burke invites us to ponder the extent of human cooperation and the boundaries of human strivings. As attitudes, these invitations reveal that Burke wanted to re-appropriate the money symbol to the realm of logology and religion – away from capitalism – to exhibit the potential justice at the heart of human experience. That justice, however, only inheres so long as the tension between animal and symbol is respected in our pursuit of needs through symbolic action. Burke strings the tension between animal and symbol along the lines of a conversation between The Lord and Satan. Along the way he shows us a Lord sympathetic to our money crimes as well as all others and a loyal opposition that laughs at our infirmities. In this way Burke works to redeem human commerce from its worst propensities by showing its relationship to the Word.

Attitudes Towards Money

ATTITUDES TOWARD THE PECUNIARY ARE PECULIAR. Both pecuniary and peculiar, according to the OED, share a common etymology in the Latin word for money, even earlier the word for property, and even earlier the Latin word for a flock or herd of farm animals. “Pecuniary” and “peculiar” tell us what belongs to a person and what characterizes them as distinct from others. How happy Kenneth Burke would be to observe again the symbolic origins of money and human character in animality, specifically the domestication and possession of animals by other animals. Who could imagine a greater number of perspectives from which to understand attitudes toward money together with all the ambiguities of possession, ownership and commerce? Originating from a shepherd’s love for his sheep, money and commerce can hardly be only or always crass. And yet our attitudes toward money are rarely understood with sufficient irony so as to appreciate the damning and redeeming qualities of the money symbol. One reason we misunderstand money is because it answers to and shapes both our animal nature (necessity) and our symbolic nature (property). Money helps provide for the creature in all of us as well as creature comforts, leading to great murkiness about what we need, what we want, and what we value. In this paper I trace the genealogy of Kenneth Burke’s attitudes toward money in the “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” to show how his logological approach toward money is original and in tension with claims offered by alternative, economic attitudes toward money. Burke’s attitudes toward money update classical ideas of political economy to suggest avenues for capitalism to avoid its worst propensities and potentialities.

What are the attitudes toward money in Burke’s “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven”? What are plausible sources for some of these attitudes? How is it that we share symbols and compete for them? As part of Burke’s larger object of criticizing criticism, he blends long-held attitudes toward money by treating money as a universal symbol of human aspirations and a particular symbol of human limitations. Money sits forever at the nexus of our animal and spiritual nature because it simultaneously holds the place of value and signifies what we value. By stressing animal limits and symbolic infinity, Burke invites us to ponder the extent of human cooperation and the boundaries of human strivings. By attending to our animal nature, human economies can better respect sheer scale and at the same time avoid a love of money for its own sake. By attending to our spiritual capacity to see beyond our animal natures we can better contain money as a means toward human flourishing rather than mistake it as a transcendent end. Burke’s attitudes in the “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven,” which appears as a beginning at the end of Burke’s book, The Rhetoric of Religion, functions as a longing to rebalance inequality by rescuing money from the logic of its own reproduction. The longing to resolve inequality comes together with a mature appreciation that such rebalancing tactics are limited and prone to inducing further inequalities. These attitudes toward money are ironic and the irony is the means of re-appropriating the money symbol to the realm of logology and religion – away from capitalism.

Those familiar with Burke’s ideas know that plausible springboards for them are Aristotle, the New Testament, and Karl Marx. This genealogy of Burke’s attitudes toward money is wonderfully knotty and allows for considerable perspective by incongruity wherein Aristotle and the Gospels lay the groundwork for Karl Marx and Marx in turn agrees with, even adopts some of Jesus’ attitudes toward the pecuniary. As such, the dialogue is a hodge-podge of ideas about money, but the hodge-podge turns out to be a delicious stew as the parts coalesce in a new logologically and theologically perfected vision of money that, as I say, re-appropriates money to its rightful home in the study of rhetoric and religion. By raising money to the level of universal symbol, Burke enters the realm of theology by way of money or the realm of political economy by way of religion. Either way, his approach rounds out The Rhetoric of Religion and invites us to see money as more than a devil-term.

Money as a Symbol of Symbols

What has money to do with religion? The title of Burke’s book, The Rhetoric of Religion, might have been rendered The Religion of Rhetoric, for the title is partly ironical where the subtitle, Studies in Logology is precisely descriptive of the contents and said to be broad enough to cover both religion’s rhetoric and rhetoric’s religion. The book shows how language embodies orders of desire, including the Idea of Order, which is, itself, a roundabout way of saying that language embodies The Word, or God (God being the highest Word or Idea of Order). The argument is furthered by Burke’s method of perspective by incongruity, whereby one can get at a symbol or substance by examining its opposite, or by juxtaposing seemingly unrelated symbols. As part of his argument intended to approach God by means of God’s opposite, Burke imagines The Lord and Satan in a conversation about money.

This dialogue touches on the symbolic power of money, but is also about temporality and its opposites.1 Implicating the idea that beginnings can be endings and endings beginnings we are asked to imagine a conversation taking place before the world was even though we literally read it after Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion is. We are asked to imagine the dialogue as taking place outside of human temporality, as if we could see at one moment “what has unfolded, is unfolding and is yet to unfold throughout the endless aeons of universal development.”2 The power of this perspective is itself an invitation to understand the mysteries of God, for only God could have the power of immediately perceiving past, present, and future. Yet as the conversation unfolds it becomes clear that Satan and humanity do not fully comprehend the works and designs of The Lord. But The Lord is a patient tutor.

Money fits naturally in this conversation about temporal realities. The word temporal is itself ambiguous, meaning both time and money or “involving merely the material interests of this world,” according to the OED. Money has a capacity to deceive us into believing it to be a pseudo-God, but Burke is careful not to depict money as a devil or devil-term in the dialogue. Instead, Burke tells us through The Lord that it’s more complicated than that (a phrase repeated nine times by The Lord). It is Satan who is constantly looking to oversimplify symbolic action. On the other hand, the Lord is highly tolerant of ambiguity and of his symbolically motivated human creatures. The power of symbolic action complicates their relations with one another and their relation to The Lord and Satan, but the Lord is ever lenient and amenable. As an epilogue to Burke’s arguments about how symbols shape our material, social, and spiritual realities, the “Prologue in Heaven” is about what symbols could mean in a meta-symbolic sense, or in a conversation before symbols assumed the meaning they now carry. Or rather, the "Prologue in Heaven" is a conversation in anticipation of symbolic action in a fallen world. Of course, as an epilogue to a discussion revealing how symbols bear the burdens they bear the work is a double entendre, at once about temporal and eternal, an epilogue as prologue. In short, Burke achieves a perspective of perspectives whereby, metaphorically and ironically, religion and rhetoric are synonymous, or are in the relationship of this for that, in the same way God and money are synonymous insofar as we put God’s name on our money “and call it an act of piety.”3

Burke arrives at money’s ambiguities by way of the fact that our symbolic action is rhetorical. Our exhortations to live in some way end up being exhortations to live in The Way, in a roundabout way, anyway, because language itself has assumed over long generations of time exhortatory powers toward Order. Burke is careful to point out that he has adopted the comic frame for this conversation, tilting the whole talk in The Lord’s favor. The Lord instructs Satan about the complexity of money’s redemptive powers, at times stealing his thunder, thus animating our conception of the money symbol in terms of the ambiguities of human life. So long seen as a devil-term in the academy and the church, to say nothing of the wider world, money, Burke insists, redeems as well as damns. What we need is a capacity to appreciate the symbolic power of money, meaning its power to captivate our attention and to operate on us in more ways than one. Seen symbolically, money is a perfect means for understanding how symbols operate on our minds and for seeing how symbols push us toward order and irony.

The “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” presumes familiarity with Christian doctrine relating to the fall of man, his redemption through the perfect sacrifice of the Son of God, and belief in a life after death. Christianity is presented as a triumphant use of human symbols to imagine and identify with redemption. Burke utilizes this triumphant use of symbols to show that there is a way to hell even from the gates of heaven, to paraphrase Bunyan. Complicating symbolic action is difficult among humans who so often tend to rely too heavily on their symbols, not appreciating the way symbols undermine the reliance. It is as if Burke is kicking away the staff upon which all of us lean to show us that we can stand up straight, but only if we will cultivate awareness of the fact that we need redemption from the complexity created by our symbols and words, that we need redemption through the Word.

The first thing Burke tells us about money is that it is a generalized form of wishing. On this point both Satan and The Lord agree. By its convertibility into everything, money is the symbol of symbols. From it we can go everywhere, for by it we can get to “Everything.”

S. But isn’t that too vague to keep them interested? After all, being animals, they will necessarily live by this particular thing and that particular thing. Far less than “everything” would be enough to choke them.

TL. No, they won’t have to gag at “everything.” For their very symbolicity will enable them to invent a particularized form of “everything,” the most ingenious symbol-system of all: money. Money is intrinsically universalistic, since everything can have its monetary equivalent, its counterpart in terms of “price.”

S. I see the pattern! What perfection! Money becomes a kind of generalized wishing. They won’t even directly reach for everything. They could even sincerely deny that they want everything. Yet they’ll get there roundabout, by wanting the universal medium into terms of which everything is convertible!

TL. Yes, once they arrive at money, they will have arrived at desire in the absolute. Their love of money is the nearest they will ever come to symbolistically transcending their animal nature. A man can even starve to death hoarding the symbols that would buy him more than he could eat in many lifetimes. And men will kill themselves trying to amass more and more of the monetary symbols that represent good living.4

Animal nature makes of us particular beings with particular needs. Money is a universal way of reaching our particular needs and thus acts as a go-between for all particulars, a symbol of everything, and thus a universal particular, or a particular universal. Its very convertibility invents the possibility of symbolically transcending animality, for by it we can convert to something else. And yet, only human animals want to transcend their nature. Aristotle was one of the first to write of political economy and to warn us about money’s sheer incapacity to move us beyond our animal nature.

Echoes of Aristotle

The transcendence of our animal nature is achieved logos-logically, or symbolically, but is there no limit to such transcendence? Aristotle’s distinction between economics and chrematistics at the end of Book I of the Politics derives precisely from the concern that our animal nature cannot be transcended by the symbol of money, and may not be transcend-able at all. Aristotle’s economics is a subset of his politics, perhaps even a counterpart to his rhetoric, and develops with respect to physics. Economics is a hybrid science arising out of physics and politics, and could be rendered as the art of homemaking. From Aristotle’s politics we know, like Plato, that the constitution of individual character is a microcosm for the constitution of a city. But Aristotle is, rather unlike the character of Socrates, capable of talking about money in instrumental terms and purposes. If a community chooses the course of seeking money for its own sake it is in jeopardy of degenerating into an oligarchic constitution, which in turn serves money as its only master. Acquisition and money have an ultimate end in nature, and only by understanding this end in terms of habitual blossoming (or, by implication, an unnatural degeneracy) can we understand how physics and politics are related.

Because acquisition of goods is natural in animals (including political, symbol-using animals) acquisition is also natural in cities. The difficulty is that in the human barnyard Aristotle has abundant examples of unnatural acquisition, against which he directs his moral energy. In order to resolve this problem he resorts to a logical and common sense explanation of economy or household management. Sound economy must attend more to people than to property and more to virtue than to wealth.5 For political animals acquisition beyond the scope of nature is possible because of the invention of money, but it is still not desirable. The limits of acquisition in nature require the virtues of husbandry and self-restraint. This assumption about the existence of boundaries in nature – like the spoiling of fruit – necessitates restraints on acquisition, for if it is unnatural to acquire fruit only to let it spoil it is likewise unnatural to acquire the means of exchange and let it sit. A well functioning city must ensure that money, as the medium of exchange for acquiring goods, is made to respect limits set by nature. We want money, but we want it to circulate. The pursuit of the means of exchange for its own sake disrespects the bounds which nature has set on acquisition. To grow money from money, in short, is a violation of the purpose for which money was invented, extends from a defect in human character, and results in an ill for the city. Political economy is subject to physics in this way because money is invented to provide matter and should therefore be subject to the material constraints of its nature. The acquisition of money is an instrument for justice only when it fulfills its own telos. “For money was intended to be used in exchange” and whenever it fulfills this intention it lives up to its nature.6 It was not intended to be collected for its own sake. For political animals acquisition beyond the scope of nature is possible, but never desirable because it works against living well.

Natural acquisition pertains to household management – or economics – while unnatural acquisition pertains to chrematistics – the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. In the former acquisition provides goods “which may be stored up, as being necessary for providing a livelihood, or useful to household or state as associations. And it looks as if wealth in the true sense consists of property such as this.”7 Chrematistics, on the other hand, is wealth that does not contribute to livelihood or human associations, and its origins are related to speech that manipulates circumstances so as to seem advantageous to everyone. Chrematistic derives from the technique of exchange. The OED records the etymology of chrematistic χρημαΤισΤικδς is related to χρημαΤιζειν which means to deal, consult, or give response as an oracle. Chrematistics is not just money making for its own sake, but includes the simulation of sacred powers of speech relating to prophecy, presumably for the making of yet more money. Chrematistics is money-talk, specifically money-making through speculation. Its technique is that of money-making through speech, signifying that money-making for its own sake is in close proximity to foretelling, or acting and talking as if one can read the future. What is especially pernicious about this kind of money-making is that it depends on winning the trust and credulity of audiences in order to produce any value. Even value seems too generous a term to describe what is produced. Dare we even call it profit? Gain? Yes, gain, the hunt, the pursuit – and little else. Visions of oil speculators and young entrepreneurs talking widows out of their homes come to mind, and the concept reaches to the development of systems whereby talking becomes consulting, dealing, and oracular-izing in exchange for money. Chrematistics involves convincing large segments of the community to prefer policies that cut against their own interests in order to allow for the chrematist to gain at the expense of the whole. Chrematistics is the confluence of all the forces of human speech for good and ill – the sacred promise and power of prophecy, but only in simulation; the citizen’s voice, but in praise of only money; the audience’s acquiescence to arguments, but only for the sake of the bottom line. One cannot imagine money-making as a way of life without money-making as a way of speech.

Despite the excesses of chrematistics, acquisition and exchange are central to economy. Aristotle is concerned to show that even exchange value has a telos, an ultimate end, that of satisfying the needs of parties to the exchange. Whenever exchange moves beyond the satisfaction of natural needs and sufficiency into the realm of money-markets it works contrary to nature. Money markets are an attempt to circumvent animal necessity. Much confusion results from the fact that these two types of exchange, retail and financial, are so similar, Aristotle warns. People are too intent on living rather than living well. For this reason people think that getting wealth is the purpose of household management. To govern a house well requires a flow of goods and money, necessitating acquisition, but the flow always has a purpose beyond itself.

As soon as a state becomes interested in the production of money for its own sake it begins working contrary to the limits placed by nature on the proper use of naturally produced goods. The people who constitute such a community neglect their duties as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters.8 This may, at first blush, seem like a strange conclusion to draw from a community’s attitudes toward money, but the link extends from Aristotle’s sense that the private household is a microcosm of the state: “For these relationships are part of the household, and every household is part of a state; and the virtue of the part ought to be examined in relation to the virtue of the whole.”9 A mismanaged state is endemic to mismanaged households; mismanaged households are endemic to mismanaged states. An oligarchic state is only possible if citizens have given themselves over to the idea of oligarchy – an echo from Plato’s Republic. The unrestrained pursuit of chrematistics tends toward the neglect of social roles and the abandonment of social duties because money loses its purpose. When duties are forgotten, the vigor of the group diminishes and connections between the part and the whole weaken. “And it will often happen,” Aristotle writes, “that a man with wealth in the form of coined money will not have enough eat; and what a ridiculous kind of wealth is that which even in abundance will not save you from dying with hunger!”10 Burke echoes this point, as cited above, “A man can even starve to death hoarding the symbols that would buy him more than he could eat in many lifetimes.”11 This is the end Aristotle worries over when societies give themselves over to chrematistics. Burke seems to have shared the worry that our money symbols may overtake our animal necessities. To develop how a logological approach to money is best, Burke must get particular about money. Money has natural bounds, but it also has symbolic powers making it a source of association and a cause of dissociation.

Money as Virtue and Vice

For Aristotle, the end of money is excellence in living. For Burke, money exemplifies logological and theological perfection. In sketching the path to logological perfection, Burke borrows the symbols of Christian piety. It should be noted that although Burke is borrowing these symbols in the form of the prologue’s interlocutors, neither Satan nor The Lord differ enough in their respective perspectives to worry about which one accurately portrays Burke’s thoughts. In other words, the two interlocutors form a whole. Rather than portraying Satan and The Lord antagonistically, Burke gives them different parts to play in manifesting a unity. Satan plays the part of the fool, even dressing like one, while The Lord plays the part of the wise instructor. Burke’s Satan is wise enough to play the fool, while his Lord is just daft enough to suffer fools gladly – or to give them enough rope to work with, believing all the while they won’t hang themselves.

Thus, when Satan says that money “perfectly burlesques the godhead” we know that we are being treated to a critique of human theologies as well as a statement that reflects God’s own allowance for our misunderstandings of his ways and thoughts. “Out of its simplicity there emerges a great complexity,” Satan adds, echoing The Lord’s many statements about the relativity and complexity of human experience. Conspicuously absent from the “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” is St. Paul’s dictum, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Instead, Burke’s Lord merely notes that the human love of money is the closest humans get to “symbolistically transcending their animal nature,” which is another way of saying money contains power to go beyond itself, even though it is, after all, the product of animals.12 “Money is intrinsically universalistic,” The Lord continues, “since everything can have its monetary equivalent, its counterpart in terms of ‘price.’”13 At the same time men kill themselves to amass more money they will find that money is a means to getting along. As well as being “intrinsically universalistic,” money is also “essentially communicative” and a “technical counterpart of love.”14 As a counterpart of love, money can “also serve as a surrogate for sexual potency.”15

By setting aside the love of money and seeing money as a way to love, Burke admonishes us toward symbolic production and away from symbolic overproduction and Empire. In all of this, we see the rounding out of the symbol-using animal by the clarification of his attitudes toward money. Elsewhere Burke praises Jeremy Bentham and the relationship between wealth and virtue.

There is a fundamental relationship between wealth and virtue which no “spiritual” scheme must be allowed to deny by fiat. Property and propriety are not etymologically so close by mere accident (and “clean” hands would in French be called propres). Morals and property are integrally related. They are obverse and reverse of the same coin. They both equip us for living.

. . . . When we learn that “industriousness has three graces for daughters – virtue, science, and wealth,” why plague ourselves further? Industry, virtue, science, and wealth are all clearly the instruments of good living. In a wider sense, they are all but the primitive need of food and shelter, culturally projected – and the sooner we unite them, the sooner we may prevent the ethicizing tendency from perpetuating evils while supposedly idealizing goods.

. . . . Give us a large dose of Bentham’s “pigsty philosophy” – for by such tests any country would be branded as gross until its last slums were removed and its paupers were given not merely sustenance, but the cultural equivalents of sustenance – activity, virtue, science, and wealth.16

Pigsties are gross, and so are slums, plagues, poverty, and dirty hands. If capitalism Jeremy Bentham style can deliver on its promise to rid us of these evils, let it try, remembering all the while that others have tried before and failed. But never lose sight of the symbolism of such strivings whereby even love and money can meet. Remember, too, that where love and money meet they may also diverge.

And around and around we go on the symbol system merry-go-round in which one symbol, the symbol of symbols, money, symbolically implicates another and another until we get to everything! Once everything has its counterpart in terms of price, including love, the love of money can be redeemed as the transcendence of our animal nature. In this gospel, even Bentham is redeemable. And as the only animals capable of inventing and then exchanging money, humans are thereby symbolically empowered to build a superstructure in which money contradicts itself. Christianity was once slave morality, but is now the moral yardstick of capitalism masquerading as, or better, burlesquing God’s will that a rising tide lifts all boats. Except, “that’s only true if you have a boat,” as one survivor of hurricane Katrina quipped. And thus we have comedy from out of the tragedy of inequality. What was deprivation and loss becomes part of the moral struggle for acquisition and profit inherent in the logic of capitalism.

TL. In the course of governance, many kinds of inequality will develop. For instance, some of the Earth-People will be able to accumulate more property than they could intelligently use in a myriad lifetimes, short as their life span is to be. And many others will starve. In brief, there’ll be much injustice.

S. It’s revolting!

TL. Hence, all the more need for “sanctions.” In the course of “proving” that such inequities are “right,” sanctions will pile up like bat dung in a cave. (And bat dung, by the way, will be quite fertile.)17

Out of the “venerable piles” of bat dung will grow the “treasuring” and “questioning” of the same. Symbols, by their very nature complicate our situation because they always implicate their opposite. The human barnyard is pure comedy in which every symbol can be seen in terms of every other symbol and in which even the actors don’t always know which meaning the symbol signifies. Money contradicts itself because it causes inequalities, which lead to sanctions, which both justify inequalities and lead to further inequalities signifying a bad joke.

By adopting the comic style Burke tells us at the outset that he is giving the advantage to The Lord. The relativity of the money symbol, of life itself, even, is a joke, but jokes by their nature have to end up well and in perfect time. The joke about money that Burke wants to tell is apparently about its ironic and self-contradictory nature – as symbol extraordinaire. Implicated in this joke is the way we can get from money to God. The contradictory nature of symbols, symbols like money, is often disheartening, but we can study these contradictions for reasons to reform our symbols and ourselves. In this respect, because money stands in for all other symbols, it has to be seen in this incongruous sense. Satan finds human contradictions enrapturing.

S. Milord, I swoon!

TL. Hold up, young one. And having seen already how their words will provide freedom in principle, by allowing for either the affirmation of affirmation, or the affirmation of negation, or the negation of affirmation, or the negation of negation, note further this sheer design, how it follows of necessity from the nature of the Word-Animal’s symbolicity: First, note that out of the negative, guilt will arise. For the negative makes the law; and in the possibility of saying no to the law, there is guilt.

S. And if guilt, then punishment?

TL. It’s more complicated than that. For money introduces the principle of redemption. That is, money will give them the idea of redemption by payment, which is to say, by substitution. For it would be a matter of substitution, if a man paid off an obligation by money whereas otherwise he might have been required to suffer actual physical torment.18

Where Satan swoons over human contradictions, The Lord gives allowances for the constraints of human symbol systems. Satan wants to destroy the dialectic by seeing money as all bad or all good. Where Satan sees the need for punishment, The Lord sees the need for redemption.

As a tool of exchange, money is indifferent about whether it goes to tithes or pornographers, but as a symbol of what we value money zealously signifies interests. Money stands beneath many motives, is an end quite often pursued for its own sake, and also a means to other ends. Money is a straightforward holder of value and a complex statement about what we value and how we can attain it. Money masks motives, but money also motivates and moves – as in the teenager who finally gets off the couch and gets a job. As a symbol, Burke is quick to note, money is a universal symbolic placeholder for everything. As such, it substitutes for God as easily as it does for the devil. Jesus recognized the symbolic power of money to generate and signify cooperation and non-cooperation, but he said there was a better way. Marx did not believe in that better way, and thought instead that capturing the means of production would be better than atonement through Christ. Because the redemption offered by capitalism and Marxism is thoroughly materialistic (and thus essentially moves away from Christianity and theology), Burke aimed to inject spirituality into the discussion about money by likening it to salvation by substitution.

Echoes of Jesus and Marx

By the dawning of the bourgeois age, Christianity was compromised by the fact that its notion of turn the other cheek no longer held sway in a society where one was to be respectable above all else.19 By the middle of the nineteenth century Marx could say that Christianity had lost its power for initiating social change – it had become the status quo, in short, and was no longer capable of eradicating the evils of the day, including bourgeois snobbery, class un-consciousness, and gross inequality. Marx’s attitudes toward religion can be seen as less hostile than often reported. Religion, Marx says, is “the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”20 In other words, religion is the heart, spirit, and medicine of a heartless, dispiriting, and sick situation. For Marx this means that religion is a function of the material realities faced by societies, realities Marx sees as desperately in need of material redemption, a redemption that is solely material. The hope religion offers, of course, would not be needed if societies followed Marx’s arrangement of materiality, or so he thought, and Marx’s complaint about religion is that it does nothing, in his mind, to relieve the real oppressions of the here and now. In his mind, religion results from inequality and merely reifies power relations as they are, resulting in further economic injustices.

All of this has not stopped writers from putting Marxism and Christianity together to explain the symbol of money and its place in a just society.21 Indeed, modern writers tend to put Christianity together with many economic systems for the purposes of furthering an agenda. To understand Marx’s attitude toward religion and commerce, in other words, it might help to gain some perspective by incongruity. Indeed, Marx’s opposition to Christianity can be explained in part through the symbolic power of Jesus’ attitudes toward money, which Marx thinks Christian societies had completely forsaken. In other words, perhaps Jesus’ point of view regarding money, from Marx’s point of view, was more right than wrong. It was Christianity that had lost its way.

Using an econometric method of studying the Gospels and in an effort to discredit any association between Christianity and socialism, Deirdre McCloskey finds that Jesus often spoke in favor of prudence and therefore could not have possibly been against markets. Jesus preaches prudence, self-love, self-interest, whatever you choose to call it. Jesus also preaches against prudence – or in favor of “a holy foolishness hostile to the world’s reasons.”22 Jesus occasionally preaches “using the rhetoric of gain, but modestly, such as ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’”23 Most often, however, Jesus preaches in ways that have no reference whatsoever to interests or prudence.24 Still, McCloskey says, a reckoning of the parables for or against prudence yields a two to one count in favor of prudence.

One is not obligated, McCloskey claims, to buy into the notion that Jesus or his teachings were anti-market or imprudent. On the contrary, she is

. . . noting merely that Jesus the carpenter lived in a thoroughly market-oriented economy and did not ask all the fishermen to drop their nets and become fishers of people. He accepted that honest money changers were necessary to change denarii into ritually acceptable shekels. He offered salvation in the marketplace, not only at the high altar of the temple. He dined with tax gatherers, not only with the Pharisees and the hypocrites of sad countenance.25

Together with her criticism of the academic clerisy – which after 1848 held trade, commerce, religion, and political economy in contempt – McCloskey argues that socialism is not incumbent on faithful Christians, in part because Jesus lived in a market society.

Her point is well made, but counting the parables for and against prudence is hardly a rhetorical reading of the Gospels any more than it proves that Jesus did or did not support a particular economic system. Consider Jesus’ statement about rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. When asked, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” Jesus asks for a penny and inquires, “Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus answering said unto them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” While Jesus is said to perceive hypocrisy in the inquirer, the answer he gives has a ring of ambivalence, as if the question is not a particularly interesting one to begin with, and, anyway, his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus reduces money to its face value – its image and superscription. By treating money as symbolic power and then shrugging his shoulders at such power, Jesus signifies that he will not be tempted by the question or by the image and superscription on the penny. He exposes money as a symbolic power to illustrate that there is a power greater still. Treating the coin by its mere monetary value would have lessened the effect of his command. God and money may be interchangeable, but Jesus refuses to allow the exchange. And they marvel.

Indeed, the early Christian interpreted the rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s as a way of “buying his way out; a sharp distinction was made between paying Caesar tax-money that was his (and there is no question of excessive taxation since what Caesar owns is nothing less than the orbis terrarum itself), and giving him the homage of a pinch of incense. That latter act was an acknowledgment of divinity, and a good Christian died sooner than make the concession, while the former was merely a recognition of ownership.”26 Rendering to Caesar, for the Christian, was “the best way to be rid of him, paying quickly and gladly whatever fees the masters of the earth imposed on them.”27 Rather than being taken in by purely earthy powers, the Christian pilgrim was to live free of such powers. By the time of Marx, his observation was that the Christian had become the ruling power and had given over to political and material powers, thus forsaking the Christian call to leave behind material things.

Jesus’ ambivalence manifests itself as a not so veiled opposition to the established order, the kind necessary, if Marx and Søren Kierkegaard are correct, to constitute Christians and Christianity in the first place. The opposition extends, if we might judge from other statements attributed to Jesus, from the idea that no earthly power, political, economic, or historical, can challenge the power of the Father, faith, hope, and charity. By emphasizing opposition to the status quo, to Caesar, to the greatest political and military might of the age, the rhetorical force of the exchange is palpable. I don’t care what you do with Caesar’s things, Jesus seems to say, only what you do with the things of God. By constituting the natural and social world in one fell, theological swoop, the rhetoric of this exchange illustrates an attitude that is incompatible with worldly worry over the payment of taxes or even the symbolism of wealth. Consider the lilies how they grow. Indeed, “rendering to Caesar” may have the rhetorical force of a thousand parables in favor of prudence to signify that the status quo ways of the world, which seem to circulate in new combinations are to be rejected by the faithful Christian.

Marx’s materiality is but an attempt at compensating for his perception that Christian immortality is not likely. If, in the long run, we’re all dead, then we’ll all be materialists – as, indeed, I think Marx and Keynes and other political economists mostly show themselves to be. The Christian is not renouncing materiality, merely the powers of permanent ownership of the earth. What the Christian renounces is sovereignty more than materiality, at least with respect to payment of taxes and withholding of incense. Instead of wanting a permanent dwelling place, the early Christian wanted freedom to move on to some happier home. Marx dismisses such freedom on the grounds that life after death is a sham. Burke, on the other hand, recognizes the Eternal Enigma of homemaking amidst interstellar infinity together with a deep respect for the fact that our symbol systems can hardly be otherwise. To be sure, Marx and Burke would have observed that the church has not succeeded in removing from the earth injustice, imprudence, and immorality. But in a way that is the point of what Burke said the Marxists failed to understand about their own mission to remake the world: Any such attempt to save the poor should learn humility from the lessons of Christian history. A history of materiality was late on the scene, as it were, but it could not afford to forget the shortfalls of earlier symbol systems. As such, Marxism knew, but seemed to have forgotten that Christianity’s history gave an example of the pressing need for humility with respect to what can be accomplished by transforming the symbols of materiality. Or, as Burke would say, both Christianity and Marxism need to remember the importance of matter’s recalcitrance.

That Marx seemed to understand the point that Jesus’ teachings were opposed to the status quo ways of political economy is apparent. But Marx did not want to preach an obvious truth. Instead, he wanted to show how capital was a false god, a Christian idol designed to oppress the world’s workers. There is enough in the story of Jesus’ posture toward Caesar’s coins for Marx or Burke to begin thinking symbolically about money. Marx indeed goes a step further by thinking about money in terms of consubstantiality, or money and capital as sharing the same substance. Thinking about money in symbolic ways is one thing, for Marx, but capital transcends money and comes even to the throne of God. Money, when it takes on the form of capital, goes from a thing of mere motion to a thing of sheer action, in Burkean terms. Its agency is subsumed in its purpose. As motion, money is a medium; as capital, money has quasi-divine (or, as it were, blasphemous) properties:

In simple circulation, the value of commodities attained at the most a form independent of their use-values, i.e. the form of money. But now, in the circulation M-C-M, value suddenly presents itself as a self-moving substance which passes through a process of its own, and for which commodities and money are both mere forms. But there is more to come: instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it now enters into a private relationship with itself, as it were. It differentiates itself as original value from itself as surplus-value, just as God the Father differentiates himself from himself as God the Son, although both are of the same age and form, in fact one single person; for only by the surplus-value of £10 does the £100 originally advanced become capital, and as soon as this has happened, as soon as the son has been created and, through the son, the father, their difference vanishes again, and both become one, £110.

Capital is the ultimate symbol because it has the power, in Marx’s analysis, to generate motion out of itself, and in the process regenerate itself again. As a kind of fungible, resurrectable material capital has power to lay itself down and take itself up again. The attribution of such power to capital is what gives Marx’s entire philosophy its motive.

Of course, money qua money has no such power which is why every time you reach into your wallet the stock diminishes. But capital, that’s a different story. By harnessing the power of labor comes the added power of capital to generate itself anew, as if it was the very Son of God presented in the very substance of the Father. The original value, plus the surplus value is a difference like that between God the Father and God the Son. The sheer consubstantiality between money and surplus value, or capital – the possibility of their being two and one – is a key to their symbolic power in Marxian analysis. Only when, symbolically, we go from money to not money (capital) to surplus value (capital plus labor) and back again to money (which is now, of course, also a greater sum of “not money,” or capital) do we recognize the real problem of injustice to which Marx is smarting. He is angry about the sheer symbolic power of the capitalist, his ability to make money from money on the backs of those who work for an amount of money that is less than their contribution to the production of yet further symbolic power which is then harnessed for yet further alienated labor, and so forth.

The passage just cited from Marx develops out of Marx’s own treatment of Aristotle’s distinction between economics and chrematistics.29 We have come full circle from the separation of money for living from money for money’s sake. In the process, we have seen that money contains a peculiar power of regeneration by its sheer convertibility and universality. It is the means to inequality and the means to remedying inequality. It is the father of capital and its offspring. It is that which damns us to inequality and that which contains the seeds of a mythical redemption by sacrifice. We are damned when we see money as an end in itself. We are redeemed when we see that money can aid us in accomplishing important ends – and as a symbolic placeholder for the highest kind of redemption available to humans.

As a means of reckoning value, money becomes the means of conceiving of redemption by substitution. Money will damn those who see its value solely in terms of itself, but its excellence as a symbolic holder of value liberates us from purely material constraints and makes possible ransom by substitution. Of course, it is not finally money that brings about redemption, but the human power to see the need for redemption and to see in money, as the symbol of symbols, a way to God. This is what is meant when The Lord describes the sacrifice of the “only begotten Son” as “theological perfection” and “logological perfection.”30 Perfection by substitution is the only way to see a symbol system, “for all its imperfection,” as if it “contains in itself a principle of perfection by which the symbol-using animals are always being driven, or rather, towards which they are always striving, as with a lost man trying to answer a call in a stormy night.”31 Satan understands this, but he cannot be content with it because his “love of paradox” makes him prefer discordance to congruity.32 One should not love paradox for its own sake. The “confusing of God and money is regrettable,” The Lord says, but we must not judge it too harshly. Harsh judgment will deny humans “the resources of their own minds” and “in effect be demanding that they think without thought.”33 Instead, the only way to move forward with the idea of this vicarious sacrifice for salvation is to face it on its own terms by seeing, as The Lord does, “that the principle of perfection takes many forms.”34 “Thus, on earth the ‘logic of perfection,’ however insistent, can prevail but relatively.”35

The only possible way to appreciate “the close connection between the form of words and the form of The Word” is by approaching human “motivational problems through an architectonic that ma[kes] full allowance for the nature of human animality and human symbolicity.”36 Hence money, for in money we have an embodied symbol, useless by itself insofar as we need food, but exchangeable for food or anything else in the right circumstances. The right circumstances are those in which money has currency, or the capacity of circulating among people. When money achieves a state of global currency, or exchange value with everything in play, then the logic of money reaches its full force, nearly overcoming the rhetoric of money. This insistent tendency toward complete ascendancy often meets with great opposition, like the Great Depression. "The Prologue in Heaven," as the culmination of a great project begun in the midst of the Great Depression, is interested in re-appropriating money from the logic of capitalism and materialism. To achieve this, Burke shows how money contains the seeds of logological and theological perfection by weaving the symbolic meaning of money from its absolute corruption in the art of chrematistics to its symbolic meaning as a placeholder of what we ought to value most as developed by Aristotle, Marx, and Jesus.

Capitalism co-opted the symbol of money as it were, chrematistically, by forcing it into a new-found logic about pursuing money for its own sake. Kenneth Burke wants us to understand money in a more complex and ironic way – beyond its face-value – so that we can better understand the role of symbolic action – of giving and receiving – in human relationships. By subsuming money in the rhetoric of religion, Burke’s logology, he (re)claims the dollar’s logos-value rather than its purely or merely economic value. This reclamation follows a religious impulse because it sees the circulation of money in terms of redemptive ritual. As a dollar becomes a gallon of milk or a tithe or any other commodity it represents cooperation in the common cause of life. Such cooperation is the most we can hope for in our interactions with one another, whether seen from God’s perspective or that of a twentieth century rhetorician’s, and insofar as the dollar represents cooperation rather than self-interest it belongs to the realm of rhetoric and religion, not capitalism.

How does Burke re-appropriate money to religion? The overriding claim of capitalism is that human nature is active and inclines toward self-improvement. Adam Smith says we are spirited and desire to engage in effort toward “bettering our condition,” as exemplified by our willingness to save money:

But the principle which prompts to save, is the desire of bettering our condition, a desire which, though generally calm and dispassionate, comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into the grave. In the whole interval which separates those two moments, there is scarce perhaps a single instant in which any man is so perfectly and completely satisfied with his situation, as to be without any wish of alteration or improvement, of any kind. An augmentation of fortune is the means by which the greater part of men propose and wish to better their condition. It is the means the most vulgar and the most obvious; and the most likely way of augmenting their fortune, is to save and accumulate some part of what they acquire, either regularly and annually, or upon some extraordinary occasions.37

Smith observes or, indeed, sows the seeds of dissatisfaction and discontent with the present by remarking on the desire to “better our condition.” Our greatest preoccupation, he says, from birth to death is that of “augmenting [our] fortune.” The desire to better our condition is “the psychological linchpin” of the Wealth of Nations and is part of “the casual eclipse of other human ends by prosperity.”38 What Smith does under the auspices of his “system of liberty” is argue that the greatest advantages that come from living in a well-governed state are that the subjects are better lodged, clothed, and fed. In short, Smith’s concern is always with materiality as the objective means to gauge improvement in life. Smith is certain we can better our condition, especially if we think of such betterment solely in terms of our houses, clothes, and food.

Burke, on the other hand, is considerably more sanguine about our drive for self-improvement and the bettering of our condition. He wants a healthy dose of Bentham’s pigsty philosophy, to be sure, but Burke’s psychological linchpin sees our desire for improvement and prosperity in terms of a limitation. Instead of seeing humans as physically active, he sees them rather as symbolically active. The change in approach makes it possible to see the ways in which bettering our condition implicates us in a host of new ways that inevitably worsen our condition. Burke stresses the symbolic by-products, the oxymorons, ironies, and contradictions of our actions toward improvement and our drive toward perfection. Likewise, Burke never limits betterment to houses, clothes, and food, although he surely includes it. Betterment, for Burke, depends to a considerable degree on the quality of our attitudes and words. Any mortal conception of absolute perfection is rotten because it is not for us to achieve the realization of absolutes. A striving for perfection through the false god of self-interest, for example, is hardly the way to imagine transcending our nature, even though such suggestions help us see what money does for us. In this respect, capitalism aids us in the discovery of logology.

Re-appropriating money from Adam Smith’s theory of self-improvement necessitates an ironic and liberal perspective toward human existence (a perspective, to be fair, Smith often shares). We have certain necessities that require cooperation. Such cooperation depends on trust and communication, what Smith called “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.” Humans employ symbols in order to induce trust and cooperation. In this respect, the symbol of money is extraordinary because the trust it manufactures is universally valid – in the sense that money can answer any necessity and any preoccupation that enters the mind of the symbol-using animal. The universal validity of money is an idol with respect to eternity, but insofar as our needs are purely temporal – physical and time-bound – money often answers the call. But even this answering of necessity does not restore money to the realm of logology and theology.

In order to do this, Burke goes back to the origins of redemption by animal sacrifice. The substitutive redemption through animal sacrifice was, for an agrarian community, the same as burning money on an altar (think pecuniary as flock or herd). Of course, symbolically it never functioned this way because the sacrifice contained a yet higher meaning, the meaning of atonement. And this is precisely Burke’s point – the sacrificial lamb is a perfect substitute; so is the sacrifice of the son of God. Money, too, is a perfect substitute, symbolically speaking, because it can be exchanged for anything – even the idea of redemption by sacrifice, if we so choose to imagine it (and many have). The sacrifice of the son of God is a perfect substitute for our crimes, our money crimes as well as all others. Money therefore functions on the level of logological and theological perfection because it is a perfect substitute for anything, or as Burke puts it, Everything! Atonement by sacrifice is a substitute Burke implies had its origins in money. For the devout theologian believing in divine revelation the idea that the Atonement derives from money sounds blasphemous. More likely, from the orthodox perspective, money is a corruption of the signs and tokens of substitution by sacrifice rather than the other way around. For the sociologist, however, money came first and from it sprang the idea of redemption by sacrifice. Burke seems to adopt the latter attitude, and by the adoption secures his place as a theologian of logology, thus simultaneously redeeming the title of his work – for only by this perspective is religion a rhetoric of human origins.39 It should be noted that the two perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

In the way of the sacrificial ram, money stands in for a higher purpose and it thus becomes a way of transcending our animal nature. Or, put more clearly, our capacity to employ symbols separates us from all other animals. Insofar as we employ our symbols to overcome our animal nature we simply renew our need for redemption. Substitutive power – the sacrificial ram for sin – is replicated every time money stands in for another thing. Exchanging money is like the Atonement in microcosm – but only when money is viewed – appropriately – or, better said, logologically. From this perspective money, or indeed the use of symbols generally, contains the seeds of redemption by substitution. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Logos is a substitute; money is a substitute. If I employ money to give me bread to sustain my life I can see a way in which money extends my mortality, thus redeeming me from death (at least for a time). If I see this transaction in purely economic terms I may miss its symbolic roots in what Burke calls theological and logological perfection. When viewed logologically, the transaction of money for bread is indicative of the way Jesus died for another’s sins, or, at least, in the roundabout way of logology it can be understood in this way. When viewed logologically, perfection takes on a new meaning by opening a door for a Lord who is sympathetic to our necessities. Complicated, logological attitudes toward money give great allowances to animal limitations as well as symbolic overproductions.


Burke’s attitudes toward money in the “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” are at once religious and indulgent toward humanity, sharing something with Aristotle, Jesus, and Marx. Seeing in our use of money and symbols an ever-present threat of destruction, these attitudes forgive a great deal. Simultaneously, and thank heavens, they seek the seeds of redeeming our existence. Our very tendency to need money when it is so devoid of intrinsic value is like our need for perfection despite an inherent inability in our natures to realize it.

Capitalism maintains two paramount attitudes toward money: Money is an end in itself and the means of self- and public improvement. Money, for the capitalist, is good for the soul and good for society. In motion, money enriches everyone. Marx says, eh, not so fast. And Burke says it is more complicated than even that. Indeed, by making his “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” tilt toward the comic, Burke necessarily leaves Marx behind. Not all labor is alienated, not all money is capital, and not all increase is for its own sake. There must remain some residue of the shepherd caring for his sheep in our attitudes toward money, even if some of the truths of capitalism and Marxism point in other directions. Burke counters capitalism’s attitude with logology, studies of the word, including the Word. In this system, the attitudes discount money as an end or even as a means of self-improvement. Money is an amusing symbol that we must not allow ourselves to become too invested in. On the other hand, if we despise money we risk erring into misanthropy.

In the "Prologue in Heaven" Satan is enamored of the way money contradicts itself and misleads humans. He is keen to point out how money leads to inequalities, forgetting that such inequalities can be redeemed. On the other hand, The Lord is generous toward money, considering it in light of the limitation of human motives. He is keen to point out how money often invites the conscience as in a customer who, when given too much change, corrects the clerk. These attitudes reinforce the fact that money is impersonal and de-personalizing, but also communicative and cooperative. Money is a source of inequality and the pressing reason for sanctions. The quest for money is like the human quest for absolute, and thus rotten perfection, but also a clue toward the realization of the symbolic power of redemption by substitution, and thus a perfection that will do. Money damns us to inequality, but redeems us by helping us work together more easily and providing us with an avenue for allowances, charity, and redemption by payment. Human debt is staggering, but the sheer size is quantifiable, and thus finite enough to be paid back. Our dual animal-symbol nature makes us prone to wander in pecuniary wastelands, like sheep which have gone astray, but, peculiarly, our animal-symbol nature also restrains us from wandering too far afield (or so we hope).


* David Gore was educated at the University of Wyoming and Texas A&M University. He is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is currently completing a book manuscript on the sacred and secular dimensions of the rhetoric of economic inquiry.

  1. I am indebted to Mark Huglen for pointing out to me the importance of time and temporality in the Epilogue.
  2. Burke, “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven,” 273.
  3. Prologue in Heaven, 292.
  4. Prologue in Heaven, 291-292.
  5. See Aristotle, The Politics, trans. T.A. Sinclair (New York: Penguin Books, 1992): 94, Book I, Ch. xiii. Book I chapter viii-xiii is where Aristotle develops his argument about natural acquisition, its degeneracy in chrematistics, and the virtues of husband and wife, father and son in connection with sound economy.
  6. The Politics, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, trans. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941): 1141, Book I, Ch. 10.
  7. Aristotle, The Politics, trans. T.A. Sinclair (New York: Penguin Books, 1992): 79.
  8. Aristotle is still on the subject of economy in Book I, ch. Xiii.
  9. Aristotle, The Politics, 97.
  10. Aristotle, The Politics, I.ix, 83.
  11. "Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven", 292.
  12. Prologue in Heaven, 291.
  13. Prologue in Heaven, 291.
  14. Prologue in Heaven, 292.
  15. Prologue in Heaven, 292. The notion of money as sexual potency is itself an echo of Karl Marx, who wrote of the power of money: “I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women.” See Karl Marx, “The Power of Money,” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844, [Online] http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm
  16. Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954): 212-213.
  17. Prologue in Heaven, 287.
  18. Prologue in Heaven, 294.
  19. Adam Smith tells the story of a Quaker who, after being assaulted on the street, responded in kind. The story, Smith says, makes us laugh because we appreciate the Quaker’s spirit. However, we would not regard him with the same esteem as one who actually lives by self-approved moral precepts since he, after all, could not restrain himself according to his own principles. See Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Ed. D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1976): 178. And, while we’re taking note, let us not forget that Marx was a brilliant critic of capitalism precisely because he read his Adam Smith.
  20. Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
  21. For example, see Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968) or, for a treatment of encounters between Christians and Marxists in German speaking countries in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see James Bentley, Between Marx and Christ: The Dialogue in German-Speaking Europe, 1870-1970 (London: Verso, 1982).
  22. Dierdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006): 447.
  23. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues, 447.
  24. Dierdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006): 447-448.
  25. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues, 450.
  26. Hugh Nibley, “Tenting, Toll, and Taxing,” Western Political Quarterly 19 (Dec. 1966): 626.
  27. Nibley, “Tening, Toll, and Taxing,” 626.
  28. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Classics, 1990): 256.
  29. See Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Group, 1990): 253, note 6. In this important note, Marx argues that wrong thinking about money derives from a failure to appreciate Aristotle’s distinction, noted above, between economy and chrematistics.
  30. Prologue in Heaven, 295.
  31. Prologue in Heaven, 296.
  32. Prologue in Heaven, 296.
  33. Prologue in Heaven, 297-298.
  34. Prologue in Heaven, 298.
  35. Prologue in Heaven, 303.
  36. Prologue in Heaven, 300.
  37. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 2 volumes (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981): 341-342.
  38. Peter Minowitz, Profits, Priests, and Princes: Adam Smith’s Emancipation of Economics from Politics and Religion (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993): 16-17.
  39. For more to complicate the view of Burke as theologian, see Edward C. Appel, “Kenneth Burke: Coy Theologian,” Journal of Communication & Religion 16 (1993): 99-110 and Wayne C. Booth, “Kenneth Burke’s Religious Rhetoric: ‘God-Terms’ and the Ontological Proof,” in Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry: New Perspectives, Ed. Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000): 25-46.

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"Attitudes Towards Money in Kenneth Burke's Dialog in Heaven Between The Lord and Satan; by David Gore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Early Disaster Cinema as Dysfunctional “Equipment for Living”: or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Kenneth Burke

Carlnita P. Greene, Nazareth University, and Christopher A. Greene, Independent Scholar


Much has been written about Burke’s famous dictum that literature is equipment for living. Many writers have assumed that he meant that all literature (high, low and experimental) performed a salubrious role for its audiences. With great daring Carlnita Greene and Christopher Greene argue that some art may be dysfunctional for its audiences, foreclosing solutions, propagandizing and narrowing rather than opening the universe of discourse.

…men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss— Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement.

IN THE PHILOSOPHY OF LITERARY FORM, Kenneth Burke proposes that form, or underlying patterns of experience in creative works, can function as “equipment for living” because they offer audiences possible strategies for managing recurring situations in their lives (1-2, 296). Since this initial consideration of form, several rhetorical scholars including Barry Brummett and others have extended Burke’s notion and assert that form also acts as “equipment for living” in popular cultural texts ranging from newspapers to films (See Brummett “Homology” 201-204; Brummett, Rhetorical Dimensions 112; Griffin, 152-163; Bostdorff 43-59; Olson 43-64; Young 447-459). Yet, each of these extensions seems to concentrate on form as, not only paralleling an audience’s lived experiences, but also as an efficacious fit such that the “equipment for living” being offered by texts is beneficial to audiences.

However, some important questions that remain unanswered by these previous studies are as follows: 1) Does form within a text always parallel audiences’ lived experiences on a formal level? 2) Does form within a text always provide an efficacious fit for audiences? and 3) Does form within a text ever give audiences defective advice such that it improperly equips them? In addressing these questions, we contend that we may not want to assume that there is an efficacious fit between texts and people’s lives. Instead, we need to consider how texts can be formally dysfunctional, meaning that the form of the text leads an audience to devise incorrect strategies for handling their “real-life” situations which also have rhetorical, social, and political implications.

Before discussing the notion of formally dysfunctional texts, we will begin by describing Burke’s concept of form and other scholarly arguments that films can function as “equipment for living.” Contrary to assumptions that forms in texts and audiences’ experiences are homologous, next we outline the three characteristics of formally dysfunctional texts. Specifically, we propose that formally dysfunctional texts can lead audiences to what Burke labels as a “trained incapacity” and in doing so act as a form of propaganda that harms the public sphere. Then, we will utilize three disaster films— Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974)—as case studies to illustrate the theoretical framework of formally dysfunctional texts by providing a rationale for their study, outlining the form found within the texts, and discussing why this form can be considered disastrous for audiences. Finally, we will conclude providing implications that this work may have and discuss possible future studies that may be undertaken by using this framework.

Form & Homology: How Films Fit People’s Lived Experiences

According to Robert Heath’s work, “Kenneth Burke’s Break with Formalism,” Burke developed his concept of form as a response to a 1920s and 30s move away from the notion of idealism as a foundation for art (132). Heath maintains that during that period intellectuals “...revolted against grand idealistic schemes of the previous century...” and were highly influenced by realism and pragmatism (“Kenneth Burke’s Break” 134). In this way, Heath explains: “Advocates of these positions were ‘suspicious of approaches which are exclusively formal’ and sought ‘to come to grips with reality’ as a means for discovering ‘the vital in social life’” (“Kenneth Burke’s Break”134). It is for these reasons that many intellectuals negated the notion of “art for art’s sake” instead suggesting that art was connected to the social experience.

Therefore, following his contemporaries, such as Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey, Burke “...was disturbed that idealism lacked a sense of society, the collectivity, and of the mind as a product of a society. What slowly emerged [in his work] was a recognition that language mediated between the mind and reality and that artistic appeal depended upon how artists excited and satisfied forms which the ‘generic’ mind had learned by experiencing patterns in nature and art” (Heath, “Kenneth Burke’s Break” 133). In this sense, as Heath argues in an earlier work, Burke most likely also was influenced by the field of psychology (“Kenneth Burke” 393). Therefore, his exploration of form in Counter-Statement is both a response to the “New Criticism” of the time and an attempt to connect form to experience such that experience also can be viewed as form-driven or structured. Form, at a most basic level, is an underlying pattern or structure. In Counter-Statement, Burke explains that: “form is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite” (31). He states that form allows audiences to both anticipate its parts and to be fulfilled by its outcome such that it provides a kind of tension and release (Counter-Statement 124). As Burke explains, “A form is a way of experiencing; and such a form is made available when, by the use of specific subject-matter, it enables us to experience it in this way” (Counter-Statement 143).

According to Burke form underlies those recurring situations with which we, as human beings, have to contend such as deciding what to do in life, becoming a parent, and facing death. He explains that form, not only underlies our “real life” experiences, but also is a key feature found within creative works (Philosophy 1-2, 296). As such, this correspondence of form within literary texts to “real-life” is one of the appeals that form has for audiences (Philosophy 1-2). It is also within these works, like literature, that we can view how form operates as “equipment for living” because it provides audiences with ideas about managing their own situations (Philosophy 293).

For example, many myths such as the hero’s journey, outlined in the work of Joseph Campbell, provide audiences with strategies for pursuing life goals, making difficult decisions, and facing challenges (136). If we consider this example further, we can see how a hero’s journey myth, such as the Harry Potter book series would offer advice to audiences. This advice may include being loyal to your friends, pursuing your dreams, and rising to the challenge of adversity because it is through these tactics that Harry perseveres in his own quest. Thus, Harry fulfills his destiny to become a wizard by working with others and not succumbing to negative influences.

Although Burke discusses the use of form as “equipment for living” mainly in terms of literature, he does not explicitly distinguish between “high” culture and “low” culture. In other words, he proposes that “the psychology of form,” can be found within a number of works ranging from Shakespeare to “the cheapest contemporary melodrama” (Counter-Statement 37). Pointing to the prevalence of advertising in his day, Burke believes that it is so successful because it relies upon the use of form as “equipment for living,” however he seems wary of this kind of art suggesting: “The proper complaint is not that art has been ineffective, but that a certain brand of art has been only too effective” (Counter-Statement 90). It is for this reason that scholar Paul Alpers, in “The Shakespearean Kenneth Burke” argues that Burke privileges “high” culture like literature over popular forms of art because “Shakespeare for him was the supreme dramatist...” (¶ 1).

While believing that Shakespeare’s work was of a high quality, Burke nevertheless is more ambivalent in his views on the “high culture/low culture” debate as he concludes: “We ask only to leave the entire matter vague—to say that a work may be popular and good, popular and bad, unpopular and good, unpopular and bad. It may be widely read and ineffectual, widely read and influential, little read and ineffectual, little read and influential...” (91). Thus, Burke contends that regardless of whether a work is popular or not its form can act as “equipment for living” and for this reason, his method can be applied to a whole host of texts. Furthering this perspective, Paul Alpers reveals, “R. P. Blackmur said of him that ‘on the whole his method could be applied with equal fruitfulness to Shakespeare, Dashiell Hammet, or Marie Corelli....’ Nowadays, of course, Burke's democratic alertness to any and all cultural products, high and low, is precisely what makes him attractive...” (¶ 1). That is to say, because Burke’s method is so malleable and applicable to various kinds of popular culture, scholars have extended his notion of “equipment for living” and have used it to analyze texts aside from literature.1

Following Burke’s original notion of “equipment for living,” rhetorical scholar Barry Brummett in “The Homology Hypothesis: Pornography on the VCR,” extends Burke’s idea of form, arguing that form in texts, such as movies and other types of popular culture, also serves as “equipment for living” (201-204). He argues that form, not only suggests advice, but also persuades people because: “the audience identifies with those texts that parallel their own particular experiences, they see The Symbol [form that parallels experiences] as relevant to their experience. We benefit from seeing our experiences articulated so that we may understand that we are not alone or unusual in what happens to us” (Rhetorical Dimensions 112). He also believes that these texts encourage people to view their worlds, and the people within them, in certain ways so that the texts do work rhetorically.

Continuing the previous example of Harry Potter, Brummett’s work would suggest that for those people who might be orphans, the books and/or films might have even more significance because they can relate to the challenges Harry faces as an orphan in a strange environment. This correspondence is not to say that this type of audience believes that they are wizards, like Potter, but it does suggest that they may look to the film for guidance about how to handle their own respective situations such that it provides them with strategies.

Paralleling Brummett, scholar Stephen Young in “Movies as Equipment for Living: A Developmental Analysis of the Importance of Film in Everyday Life” suggests: “audiences can make conscious connections between the meanings they see in art works and their experiences in the world” (448). He maintains that films have the ability to transform audiences’ views of their lives and often influences them to pattern their lives after the forms that they find in movies (447,459). For example, perhaps the young orphan who views the Harry Potter films chooses to view her life from a positive perspective and decides that she, like Hermione Granger, will study hard in school, to achieve success. Young further explains that critics also need to consider how audiences make sense of lived experiences through the viewing of films and that the way they do so is considerably complex (464).

One factor that contributes to the complexity of studying how films function as “equipment for living” is to view the relationship between form and content by questioning the extent to which audiences are responding to the form of films or the content contained therein. In Rhetorical Homologies: Form, Culture, Experience, Brummett explains: “A simple distinction that might be made between form and content holds that content is the information conveyed by a message whereas form is either the pattern that orders the content or the physical manifestation of the message” (3). However, he reveals that it is difficult to tell the difference between the two as they are intermingled and that Burke also views them in this manner2 (Rhetorical Homologies 4). As we can see from the Harry Potter examples, the audience seems to be responding to the form of the story as well as its content because Harry is a particular boy, embodies a specific time and place, and faces challenges that are directly related to becoming a wizard.

Yet, Burke also seems to argue that texts can appeal to audiences mainly on a formal level when their content cannot provide them with information or, in the case of “equipment for living,” advice explaining “…form is the appeal (Counter-Statement 138). For example, music such as acid and/or free jazz largely has no ‘content.’ That is to say, it chiefly is the use of abstract sounds, rhythms, and noises with no lyrics. In other words, it does not provide audiences with any specific information or advice, yet it is popular with them because of its form.

The music creates and satisfies audiences’ appetites through the use of these sounds, rhythms, breaks and silences, but it does not provide them with any specific messages. Similarly, if a filmmaker creates a film based on completely random images with no connection to each other, she may not be providing audiences with any information or advice aside from visual formal appeals. Therefore, while these forms can appeal to audiences and satisfy their appetites, they cannot be considered “equipment for living” because the content does not provide them with any information or strategies.

Perhaps an even more important complication that arises within the form-content dichotomy is that, as Burke argues, form often operates out of awareness (Counter-Statement 138). The form calls to audiences even if they are unconscious of the fact that the form is appealing to them. Brummett also highlights that content can “piggyback” on form such that while form is appealing to people and acting as “equipment for living” by offering them advice, the content specific messages are slipping in sometimes unnoticed (Rhetorical Homologies 20). Therefore, it is hard to distinguish between the form and content of a text as they often work in tandem.

When discussing how form operates as “equipment for living,” scholars Brummett and Young, respectively, seem to operate under the assumption that texts advise audiences at a formal level when the form of the texts matches the form of the audiences’ experiences (Brummett “Homology” 201-204; Young 447,459). They assume that this matching of the audiences’ experiences to the experiences of texts is an accurate fit. In other words, audiences can relate to the form of texts because on a formal level it resembles their own lived experiences. As such, Brummett and Young also seem to suggest that the information or advice provided within the texts should be a “fitting response” to audiences’ “real-life” situations and that this advice is positive (Bitzer in Burgchardt 66).

However, rather than viewing them as homologous with the audiences’ experiences, we argue that we may not want to assume that there is an efficacious fit between texts and people’s everyday lives. We are not arguing that films or texts have to be realistic in order to be functional “equipment for living.” Nor are we suggesting that the fit between audiences’ lives and texts has to be a literal one for texts to offer effective “equipment for living.” For the most part, films and texts, especially within the genre of fiction, may not wholly match audiences’ lived experiences. However, we assert that aside from texts not offering any advice, in the sense of being “pure form,” they can offer incorrect or wrong advice such that the strategies that the form conveys are not beneficial for the audiences’ “real-lives.” Thereby, rather than equipping audiences the form becomes dysfunctional “equipment for living.”

Characteristics of Formally Dysfunctional Texts

Before discussing the characteristics of formally dysfunctional texts, it is not that the texts lack form or that they do not provide the audience with rhetorical advice that can be used as “equipment for living.” Indeed, form is one of the main reasons that the texts capture audiences’ attentions and influences them. Nor are we suggesting that films that are formally weak, or do not offer audiences advice, although films without strong form are probably unable to capture audiences’ attentions and imaginations in the same way as films with strong form. As stated earlier, because form often operates out of awareness, audiences may not consciously consider the advice that the form offers or that they are being influenced by the form in the first place.

Consequently, we would like to explore how texts can advise audiences in ways that are disadvantageous for groups within a given time and place. For texts to be considered formally dysfunctional, we must consider them in their entire contexts and take into account the cultural, social, and political milieu in which they operate. In other words, texts can be formally strong and offer incorrect or dysfunctional strategies, but not be considered formally dysfunctional because of the larger cultural, social, and/or political contexts in which they operate. For example, in comedies, like There’s Something About Mary (1998) the advice or “equipment for living” offered often suggests incorrect strategies for managing situations (like stalking or drugging a dog) and these mishaps are usually where the cusp of humor lies. In the same way, texts that are formally dysfunctional within one historical, cultural, social, and/or political period may not be dysfunctional for other times, places, and/or political situations.

Similarly, texts can be formally strong, yet send mixtures of both correct and incorrect strategies. For example, in the film The Wild Bunch (1969) the main form of advice offered is solving problems through violence and expediency. However, simultaneously, the film also formally endorses notions of loyalty and friendship. Therefore, it is important to address how texts are situated in terms of the larger social, cultural, and most importantly political contexts to determine whether they functions as formally dysfunctional texts or not.

As such, we propose that there are three characteristics of formally dysfunctional texts, which are as follows: 1) Abstract form causes audiences to consider their lives as parallel to the experiences of the texts when they are not homologous; 2) The texts favor a particular orientation of reality that leads audiences to a trained incapacity; and 3) The texts mislead audiences because they seem like “equipment for living,” but actually the texts function rhetorically as a form of propaganda.

Before describing the three characteristics in more detail, we must note that texts can possess one or more of these characteristics to be defined as formally dysfunctional. For example, texts may only be firmly rooted within one characteristic and not feature the other two characteristics. Similarly, while texts may possess all three characteristics, one characteristic also may be more prevalent than the others. These three characteristics can be discussed individually, but sometimes overlap in texts. Yet, we will discuss each feature separately so that it is easier to understand how they function within given texts.

First, abstract form causes audiences to consider their lives as parallel to the experiences of the texts when they are not homologous. The matching of form to lived experiences is a key feature of how texts operate as “equipment for living.” As Burke explains, “The Symbol [form or pattern of experience] is perhaps most overwhelming in its effect when the artist’s and the reader’s patterns of experience closely coincide (Counter-Statement 153). By effect, he means that people respond more to texts which they believe are “in tune” with their own lives at a formal level. Accordingly, scholars Burke, Brummett, and Young each argue that the homology between “real life” experiences and texts is what draws audiences to texts. That is to say, the form of most texts operates as “equipment for living” when the form is homologous to people’s lived experiences.

Within formally dysfunctional texts people’s lived experiences may not match the texts beyond the most abstract level. While the form of these kinds of texts may parallel audiences’ experiences principally at an abstract level, when we start to view the texts in their respective entireties, it becomes clearer that the texts and audiences’ lives are not homologous. Yet, because the form itself is appealing, it encourages audiences to view their lives as if they are homologous to experiences of the texts.

The audiences’ identification with the texts also is one that Kenneth Burke describes as “identification by inaccuracy” (in Thayer 269). Burke argues that in this kind of identification, audiences erroneously conflate their own situations and/or interests with those of texts when they are not compatible or linked (in Thayer 270).Using the examples of cars and drivers, he claims “Such thoughts concern man’s identification with his machines in way whereby he mistakes their powers for his, and loves himself accordingly” (in Thayer 269-270). He suggests that this kind of identification also could be labeled as one “by unawareness” or “by false assumption,” because audiences believe that they possess the same kinds of power and/or authority as texts and for that reason feel they are imbued with these same benefits or qualities (in Thayer 269-270). In this sense, he asserts that a person who is a citizen of a powerful nation will mistake that nation’s power for his own whether or not in actuality he is impotent in terms of his own life choices (in Thayer 270).

Paralleling Burke’s argument, we suggest that audiences’ might identify with formally dysfunctional texts, but this identification is one that is an identification by inaccuracy because audiences identify the power of texts as their own power when the audiences lack this kind of power in their real lives. They may mistakenly conflate the texts qualities with their own regardless of whether this connection is accurate and/or beneficial. Nevertheless, they are persuaded by the form’s appeal to identify with the texts.

For example, primarily at a formal level, a story might be about people stranded on a desert island that have to band together to escape which suggests a message of “if we work together, we will survive.” However, the audiences’ real lives may be such that they do not have a group to consult regarding problems, which may be highly individualized. In other words, the audiences may take this text as paralleling their lives and therefore believe that the kind of strategy offered in the story can be used as a coping mechanism for their own problems.

While the appeal of the formal elements of texts present audiences with strategies, they impart advice for managing situations that may not parallel the audiences’ real life experiences. In this sense, the “equipment for living” offered by the texts is not “equipment” that they need nor does it benefit them in any way. Formally dysfunctional texts, therefore, do not bestow an efficacious strategy and often suggests the wrong advice to audiences.

Secondly, the texts favor a particular orientation of reality that leads audiences to a trained incapacity. An orientation, according to Burke, is a particular perspective from which to view the world based upon our particular training, occupations, educations, and experiences (Permanence 14). He argues that when we view situations in everyday life, we often do so according to the particular orientation that is most “natural” because it has been developed and reinforced over time. Therefore, our perspectives of reality are, according to Burke, “selections of reality” (Language 45). That is to say, our orientations help us to function in certain ways. Therefore, if people use texts, like films, as “equipment for living” then the films are training them in some manner, which may lead them to a “trained incapacity.”

Although Burke mostly uses the concept of “trained incapacity” to refer to professions, we can extend this idea to form within films as “equipment for living.” As Burke explains, “By trained incapacity he [Veblen] meant that state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindness” (Permanence 7). Because we are conditioned or trained in particular ways, over time we may only be able to function in those ways while we overlook other ways that we could live or operate within the world (Permanence 7). Therefore, we develop particular orientations that may make us blind to other viewpoints or ways of seeing.

As Neal Gabler in Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality explains, people increasingly view their lives in terms of the media to the point that people now live their lives as if they are in the movies and can no longer easily distinguish between the two (233). If Gabler is correct in this perspective, then people who rely on movies as guides are shaped or influenced by what they see in these films. However, if the form of the films causes them to become blind or unaware to other ways of living or actions that they could take, then the form functions to create a kind of trained incapacity.

This aspect of formally dysfunctional texts is one of its most important characteristics. It also is one previous critics seem to have overlooked because they assume that texts are providing audiences with “equipment for living” that is homologous to audiences’ experiences in the world. Simultaneously, these same critics seem to presume that the “equipment” being provided is beneficial when it could be creating an orientation that is a trained incapacity for audiences. Nevertheless, in formally dysfunctional texts this “equipment” is erroneous.

Finally, formally dysfunctional texts mislead audiences because they seem like “equipment for living,” but actually the texts function rhetorically as a form of propaganda. By misleading, we suggest the texts appear to offer “equipment for living.” They may give all the hallmarks to suggest that audiences employ their implied strategies, however the outcome of this usage is negative for audiences. In other words, audiences who seek rhetorical advice may be influenced by form to follow the strategies the texts present when the advice is counter to their interests. Yet, perhaps one of the most damaging forms of advice that texts can recommend is “equipment for living” that debilitates the public sphere.

By the use of the term “public sphere,” we draw upon Jurgen Habermas’ notion of a sphere in which citizens can engage in debate by discussing their collective interests and making choices based upon those interests (27). However, as Habermas’ concept of the public sphere is both limited and does not account for the prevalence of mass media,3 as Craig Calhoun argues in Habermas and the Public Sphere: “the importance of the public sphere lies in its potential as a model of social integration” (emphasis added 6). Therefore, following Hauser and Blair, and Seyla Benhabib respectively, we propose that the best way to consider the public spheres of the 20th and 21st centuries are as “rhetorically constituted” in terms of discourse because “the discourse model is the only one that is compatible…with the general social trends of our societies…”(Hauser and Blair 143, Benhabib in Calhoun 95). That is to say, the public sphere is constituted by citizens’ abilities to participate in and deliberate matters politically.

Yet, this public discourse is a rhetorical struggle and often our mass media play a crucial role in terms of fostering and sustaining the public sphere because it is one of the primary ways that citizens become educated and informed about our societal, cultural, and political affairs. As Craig Calhoun further suggests: “In the terms Habermas has adopted, we might say that the public sphere plays a crucial ‘world-disclosing’ role alongside of, or possibly independent of, its problem-solving one” (34). It is in this sense that we can view media operating as an underlying foundation for our public sphere because it is where the discursive struggles necessary to sustain “the public” occur in contemporary society.

As such, because media plays such a fundamental role in enabling the public sphere, there also is the potential for it to function as propaganda. According to authors Jawett and O’Donnell in Propaganda and Persuasion: “Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (7). If media are a key element of the public sphere, and they offer propagandistic messages, then they can be considered potentially harmful to the public because they may undermine the very systems that are necessary for an engaged and participatory public sphere (i.e. educated and informed citizens) who are able to debate social and political matters. However, we argue that although propaganda often is considered as a deliberate attempt to influence people’s beliefs and actions, it also can operate unintentionally as a hegemonic force within society.

As Antonio Gramsci argues hegemony is that form of social consent in “which the dominant group exercises throughout society [in one instance] and on the other hand to that of ‘direct domination’ or command exercised through the State and ‘juridical’ government” (12). He explains that although governments can use coercive power as a means of control, such as military power, the police, and/or physical violence, another, and perhaps more dangerous form of control is that which he names hegemony or the dominant control of ideas (12-13). He reveals mass media can operate as a form of propaganda for social control in which dominant ideas presented within media are made to seem natural (12-13). Unlike coercive force, hegemony perpetuates itself such that the people themselves reproduce it in their own forms of thoughts and actions (12-13).

We argue that formally dysfunctional texts function as a means of hegemony in the sense that they promote dominant ideologies while at the same time masking them. That is to say, they seem to be entertainment, when they are promoting particular ideological stances. They also seem to be offering their audiences “equipment for living” or advice when in actuality, they are promoting particular political and/or social viewpoints about their societies as a form of propaganda. Yet, because audiences suppose they should use the films as guides, they may not be consciously aware that the texts’ messages [meaning the form and content combined] lead them to follow a particular ideological perspective about the world which may not be homologous with their actual life experiences. Again, this identification with texts seems to be an identification by inaccuracy in which audiences are encouraged to see the solutions the texts offer as viable when upholding this ideology may be counter to their own lives.

Thereby, the films actually create a “trained incapacity,” not only to view the world from one perspective, but also to make decisions that are politically and socially ineffective in the real world, to act against their best interests within society, and/or to disengage from the public sphere. As such, it is especially important for scholars to take a close look at texts, like disaster films, that are not explicitly didactic. These texts may appear to be “mere entertainment” or merely “equip” one for living, yet these films may function in detrimental ways. Therefore, we turn to three films from the 1970s disaster genre to further explicate the characteristics of formally dysfunctional texts.

Why Study Disaster Films: An Analysis of the Case Studies

The 1970s was a time of great political upheaval and resulting cynicism. With a faltering economy, the gas crisis, an inauspicious ending to the Vietnam War, the Church Commission, and the Watergate Scandal, the early seventies were a time of extreme socio-political stress in the United States. Coinciding with these “real world” events, a genre known as “disaster” films became prevalent in American cinema with “a veritable ‘swarm’ of 53 disaster movies” being released during this time (Keane 19). Although numerous disaster films have been released since the seventies, it is important to look at the genre’s roots, because unlike many of the later films in the genre, which seem to be rooted in millenarianism, the earlier films provide insight into the social and political climates of the period in which the films were created, namely the early to mid 1970’s. As Edward Berkowitz suggests in Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies, “...movies offered tantalizing vignettes of the era...The best films of the seventies use the form of established genres…to comment on the state of American life” (178).

The disaster genre also steadily has maintained popularity as Stephen Keane reveals at the publication of his book in 2001,“ The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure still feature in the top 280 domestic box-office grossers of all time, the former at number 148 with $116 million and the latter at number 257 with $84 million” (19). The genre of disaster films is recurring within American cinema, in addition to films such as Titanic, a new version of The Poseidon Adventure, simply entitled Poseidon, was released in 2006. Hence analyzing the “classic” films may shed some light on this genre as a whole. Now utilizing, the theoretical framework of how formally dysfunctional texts are constituted, we turn to an analysis of the texts by first providing brief overviews of each film.

The film Airport (1970) launched the disaster film genre as a whole being the first of its kind. Revolving around two disasters, it depicts an airport trying to remain open during a major blizzard while simultaneously a suicide bomber threatens one of its planes. Mel Bakersfeld, the general manager of the airport, not only has to contend with the weather, but also must face a wide array of personal and professional problems. Concurrently, his brother-in-law, Vernon Demerest, who is one of the pilots aboard the potentially doomed flight, has to deal with the fact that his mistress is now pregnant. Aside from the personal situations the characters face, other dilemmas that arise throughout the film are a stowaway, angry homeowners, and a plane blocking the now snow-covered runway.

In the second film, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), a ship reminiscent of the Titanic is capsized by a giant tidal wave on New Year’s Eve such that the top of the ship is now underwater and the only means of escape is to climb up to the bottom and out to safety. While most of the passengers believe that they should just stay put where they are, a small group lead by the Revered Frank Scott attempt to escape the now seemingly doomed craft. Along the way, the group not only has to manage conflicts, but also contends with fires, rising water, and navigating the maze of the upside down hull of the ship.

Finally, in the third film The Towering Inferno (1974), the dedication of the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, which is attended by numerous governmental officials and high profile private citizens, ends in disaster. Because Duncan Enterprises, the creators of the building wanted to maximize profits and reduce the costs associated with construction, they were negligent in their wiring of ‘The Glass Tower’ thus leading to a massive fire. The building’s architect, Douglas Roberts, suspects that these “cost-cutting” measures were taken and confronts members of his corporation. In the end, he aids the fire chief, Michael O’Hallorhan, not only in devising a strategy to evacuate the building, but also one to extinguish the blaze by detonating its water towers.

In analyzing the structure of disaster films, Stephen Keane observes that they can be considered from the perspective of archetypes such as “the ship of fools” or “survival and salvation” (23, 36, 39). Similarly, they seem to reflect the themes of “humans versus nature” or “technological advances cause the doom of humans.” However, if we examine the films from the Burkean perspective of form, we find that the one form that pervades all three films can best be described as “a faith in systems.”

In each of the films, a group of people must band together to survive the numerous disasters that develop along the way. However, the groups are encouraged to rely on the various cultural, bureaucratic, social, and political systems that are already in place. They are required to take action, but this action is only at the behest of those systems. Additionally, some of the characters are authority figures (e.g. Airport Manager, Fire Chief, Reverend, etc…) that belong to “the system” and initiate solutions to the disasters in the films. Thus, the overarching form suggests that these various agencies will be able to fix any problems and will see them through in the end regardless of “the system’s” potential shortcomings and/or flaws. Employing the three criteria previously discussed, now we will explain why these texts can be considered formally dysfunctional.

1) Abstract form causes audiences to consider their lives as parallel to the experiences of the text when they are not homologous.

One of the main reasons that the films resonate with audiences is due to the casts of characters who represent a cross-section of the American public.4 Having various occupations ranging from pilot to police officer to a nurse, audiences may be able to identify with the characters because they are in an analogous profession. Aside from their occupations, the characters also represent a wide range of social roles and socioeconomic positions such as noble and ignoble, young and old, and rich and poor. Thus, this cast of characters tries to capture, in essence, a sense of the “everyman” in society.

For example in Airport (1970), Mel Bakersfeld, (played by Burt Lancaster) is a no nonsense airport manger who operates within “the system,” yet battles against the commissioners to do what is most effective and right. He, therefore, portrays a white-collar worker able to create change from within the organization. Similarly, Patroni (played by George Kennedy), represents someone who helps “the system” to function smoothly. He is the working class, blue-collar mechanic who saves the day through self-sacrifice and grit by taxing out a plane that was stuck in the snow and blocking the runway. Tanya Livingston (played by Jean Seberg) represents the growing facet of women in the workplace. She is an intelligent, highly competent woman who works and thrives in the male-centered world. Finally, Vernon Demersest (played by Dean Martin) is the cocky pilot philanderer who, nevertheless, is heroic in attempting to thwart the bomber and helps to land the damaged aircraft.

In contrast to those characters that work for the airline, the characters of D.O. Guerrero (played by Van Heflin) and Inez Guerrero (played by Maureen Stapleton) represent a working class couple deeply affected by the struggling economy of the early 1970’s. D.O. Guerrero, a Vietnam veteran, is an unemployed demolition expert for the construction industry who is a victim of the challenging financial times and changing economic conditions of the period. Due to his desperation and war-related mental instability, he takes out an insurance policy and tries to blow up a plane in hopes that his wife will reap the benefits from his death. Guerrero’s wife, Inez, represents working class indomitability through her resiliency in the face of adversity, struggling to meet the family’s financial responsibilities and remaining steadfast in her loyalty to her husband. She, not only tries to stop her husband, but also attempts to save his fellow passengers by alerting the airline authorities. Not only are these characters cross-representational, each of the films utilizes ensembles to draw audiences into the stories. Because the films employ ensemble casts, it is easier for audiences to identify with one or more of the characters. This process of identification may be linked to a character or characters being from the same demographic and/or having similar personalities to the viewer. Furthermore, as these ensemble casts are comprised of stars like Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters, Gene Hackman, Jacqueline Bissett, and Steve McQueen, audiences are encouraged to identify with these celebrities. In other words, even if audiences do not identify with a particular character, they can ‘root for’ their favorite movie star to survive the disasters of the films.

These two features, casts made up of the “everyman” and the use of ensembles, work in tandem with the specific circumstances surrounding major disasters that make the films engaging for audiences. The disasters themselves present a heightened sense of danger that further lures audiences into the films’ plots and impels them to invest in witnessing their outcomes.

Continuing with the example of Airport (1970), the primary disaster of the film is a snowstorm and a plane landing in this inclement weather. As many people have anxiety about flying, coupled with the extreme weather conditions, the first disaster in Airport (1970) is somewhat steeped in the everyday. Although more uncommon, the second threat of a bomb aboard a plane is rooted in the ever-increasing amount of global terror (especially in Europe) during the 1970s; therefore, a potential hijacker or bomber would not have been completely farfetched. In this sense, the form continually creates tension both through the multiple disasters and offers release as the characters that the audiences have closely identified with survive from one obstacle to the next. As such, audiences can relate to the kinds of situations that the films’ characters face and may view their own lives as parallel, albeit in a more abstract sense.

Simultaneously, the films make problems seem both inevitable and “natural.” That is to say, once one problem in the films is resolved another arises to take its place. This “naturalization” of plights may deflect audiences away from considering that the circumstances of the time were caused by the ineffective governmental and societal systems in place. In turn, they may begin to view dilemmas like a recession as a “natural” occurrence within the economy or an increase in taxes as the “natural” solution to balancing the government’s deficit. In addition, they may view other aspects of life as “natural” such as the increasing tensions between various racial groups as “just how things are” without critically considering how these phenomena occur and are shaped within American society.

2) The texts favor a particular orientation of reality that leads audiences to a trained incapacity.

The sheer scope of the disasters in the films points audiences to a particular orientation that operates as a “trained incapacity.” Because the films’ disasters are specifically “life-and-death” struggles, they trivialize the economic, political, social, and cultural struggles that people had to face during this time. In other words, most members of the audience were not currently facing an airplane bomb, a tidal wave, or a high-rise fire. This kind of form encourages audiences to disengage with their own problems. Granted, a part of films’ purpose is to be entertaining, however, it seems as if the comparisons between the films and “real-life” cause audiences to have a trained incapacity that “disastrous” situations have heightened, grand-scale crises. In this sense, the form may direct audiences to deem that they do not have to engage in the political work necessary to facilitate change within their society such as voting or lobbying the government to solve the problems that they face. They inadvertently may begin to compare their own lives to those of the films and think, “At least I’m not dead,” or “ I’m not facing any life-threatening situation such as a burning building, a plane crash, or a ship wreck.”

All three movies, influence audiences to consider that they should continue to rely on the current governmental, social, religious, economic, and political systems. Regardless of bureaucratic corruption, corporate malfeasance and/or incompetence, “the system” will overcome the disasters. This representation of “the system” as savior predominantly is exemplified through the main characters as ultimately these authority figures, whom “stand in” for the systems they represent, solve the problems and alleviate the situations. For example, in Airport (1970), the mechanic (played by George Kennedy) and the airport manager (played by Burt Lancaster) represent “the corporation” and the reverend (played by Gene Hackman) symbolizes “the church” in The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

To further analyze how this “standing in” for “the system” functions, let us examine how various systems operate in The Towering Inferno (1974). Here we have the architect (played by Paul Newman), the businessman (played by William Holden), and the fire chief (played by Steve McQueen). First, the architect, Doug Roberts, is represented as an “everyman” fulfilling a vision by creating the world’s tallest skyscraper. Throughout the film, he is positioned as a hardworking individual who tries to do the best he can despite unforeseen circumstances. Unaware of the corporate malfeasance of cost cutting and substandard methods, which result in the fire, thus absolving him of direct responsibility, he is represented as an individual who, while part of “the system,” is incorruptible and rallies to solve the problem and helps to save lives.

Paralleling the architect, the businessman, Jim Duncan, is positioned as a man of substance who leaves his mark on the world through the foresight to bring the tallest skyscraper to fruition. As a representative of “the corporation,” the businessman epitomizes how “the system” is a catalyst for change and progress. For example, at the ribbon cutting ceremony, when the mayor asserts: “I hereby dedicate this magnificent Glass Tower tallest building in the world” he labels the skyscraper a feat of human achievement and advancement.

Furthermore, while Duncan is largely responsible for the disaster as the head of Duncan Enterprises, the ethical scapegoat is his son-in-law, Roger Simmons (played by Richard Chamberlain) who is the individual that “cut corners” in order to maximize profits and ‘causes’ the accident. In his own defense, Simmons contends that Duncan is ultimately responsible when he alleges:

You didn’t talk like this two years ago, did you? Running over budget and out of money. Did you ask me then how I could shave two million dollars off our electrical costs? So let me ask you, my dear father, am I the only subcontractor you encouraged to cut costs? Where did you save the other four million dollars in Doug’s [Paul Newman] budget?

However, Duncan does not admit to culpability and “the corporation” is still left with plausible deniability because he can argue that his son-in-law acted without his consent. Thus, Jim Duncan remains free of blame and like many of the business and political figures in the film, conducts himself in a heroic manner, underlining “the corporation’s” favorable representation. Furthering this absolution of “the corporation,” the disaster itself is chiefly represented as a strong case of “bad luck,” a random fire in a new building that was built to government code.

Finally, Fire Chief O’Hallorhan, as a representative of governmental agencies, is the main person who comes to the rescue and is the definitive voice of both government and moral authority. He takes control, delegates responsibilities, and is expertly knowledgeable about how to handle the fire. He is also the primary individual who brings about a resolution to the dilemma of the fire in a courageous and competent manner. As such, he is the moral compass for the film and at the end places the blame, not on “the system” itself, but on the “everyman” for his hubris and failure to consult “the state” when he addresses the architect at the end of the film by professing:

You know we were lucky tonight; the body count less than 200. You know one of these days you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps. And I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build them.

3) The texts mislead audiences because they seem like “equipment for living,” but actually the texts function rhetorically as a form of propaganda.5

As stated in the last section, the notion of relying on “the system” to provide solutions for problems also is applicable to this section. In this sense, the form functions as a kind of ideology, or propaganda, that seeks to shape people’s behaviors and beliefs about their respective positions within society and their relationship to governmental structures. The propaganda encourages audiences to maintain the status quo, does not encourage them to seek out their own solutions to problems, and does not encourage resistance to and/or questioning of the society as it stands. As we saw in the last section, in the films The Towering Inferno (1974) and Airport (1970) the fire chief and architect as well as the airport manager and mechanic, suggest that a reliance on “the system” will lead to a viable solution.

Perhaps, this notion of “equipment for living” acting as propaganda is best exemplified by The Poseidon Adventure’s (1972) Revered Frank Scott (played by Gene Hackman). The reverend is a combination of both “old timey” and modern religion, which preaches with a fervent passion, that people have to take responsibility for and solve their own problems. For example, when he gives his fiery sermon at the beginning of the film he declares, “Therefore, don’t pray to God to solve your problems; Pray to that part of God within you. Have the guts to fight for yourself! God wants brave souls! He wants winners not quitter! If you can’t win at least try to win! God loves triers...”

However, he still morally and ethically represents the institution of “the church.” He persuades some of his fellow passengers to take control of their escape by vacating the ballroom to climb up into the ship’s engine room, which is now at the top of the ship. Yet, fundamentally these passengers have to rely on his guidance to survive the tragedy and he leads this “flock” of mainly women, children, and the elderly to safety. In this way, Reverend Scott both literally and figuratively saves them from the shipwreck that includes both fire and destruction, which some religions believe is reminiscent of Hell. This idea of salvation is also demonstrated through those characters that do not survive because they are considered “immoral” or “flawed” in some way and die for their “sins.” For example, Linda Rogo (played by Stella Stevens) a former prostitute signifies the “sin” of lust and Mrs. Rosen (played by Shelley Winters) represents the “sin” of gluttony. Even the reverend himself is guilty of the “sin” of pride and eventually sacrifices his own life to save the others.

Although the main form of resistance to the reverend and “the system” comes from Detective Lieutenant Mike Rogo (played by Ernest Borgnine), a retired police officer (who is also a part of “the system” in his own way), Rogo is represented as a resistant agitator who consistently seeks the authority of leadership, while lacking the moral authority of the reverend. For example, when Rogo suggests that they abandon the reverend and join up with other passengers, traveling in the opposite direction from their group, he is overruled by his companions. Instead, they wait until the very last second for the reverend’s return. Therefore, throughout the journey Rogo is placed in a subservient position to the reverend’s authority.

Finally, the Reverend Scott not only represents the power of “the system”, he literally becomes the final savior of the passengers when he sacrifices his life to open one of the ship’s steam valves by leaping off a catwalk and turning the wheel. During this scene, he offers himself as a sacrifice to God by saying, “take me,” before descending into a lake of fire. Thus, the reverend, much like the fire chief in The Towering Inferno (1974) and the airport manager in Airport (1970), is a voice of righteousness that simultaneously is the voice of “the system” as embodying said righteousness.

Another way that the films operate as propaganda is that they also create an ideology that suggests change can only occur on a large scale and not on a personal level. While the characters in each of the films have personal problems, these are easily resolved and are a backdrop for the foci of major disasters. As the general understanding of disasters is that they are larger than normal events, some of the other disasters of that time (a recession, racial tensions, Watergate, etc.) if positioned in contrast to the films would be considered trivial by comparison. This idea also carries over into the lives of the audience members as they may feel that the only way they can change their lives is on a grand scale. Therefore, they may feel overwhelmed if they cannot come up with a viable solution that makes a large impact in their lives.

Consequently, the form that spans across the films provides the audience with a false sense of “equipment for living.” Because the form is so persuasive and pervasive, audiences may believe that the films are providing them with practical advice for managing their lives. Yet, the films may be acting as a form of propaganda that equips them in ways that are detrimental to them as individuals and to public sphere. Thus, it is of utmost importance that critics continue to analyze these kinds of texts.

Conclusion & Future Implications

Correspondingly, Burke’s own argument provides reasoning for studying these formally dysfunctional texts because as form exists within various works of literature and art, so too, do we need to continually revisit how form functions within them. As “equipment for living,” the films offer people instructions on how to live their lives. Yet, we need to consider how form also can recommend inadequate advice or equipment, which not only is not homologous with people’s lived experiences, but also causes them to act against their best interests. These films do work rhetorically and if their messages are propagandist then certainly they are doing political and social work. It is also important to look at specific historical and/or cultural moments, even if those moments occur in the past. Because forms and patterns are repeating, (and Burke believes some are transhistorical), the disaster films of the 1970s as “equipment for living” may elucidate our current social, political, and cinematic situations. In other words, by examining these past forms, we may understand how they are currently functioning in society.

Throughout this essay, we have outlined a theoretical framework that extends Burke’s notion of “equipment for living” to include texts that are formally dysfunctional. However, there are some questions that remain and could be the basis for launching future research in this area. First, since these disaster films emerged within a specific historical and cultural period they have pertinent messages that are particularly relevant to that time frame. Yet, does this creation of formally dysfunctional texts occur in other specific time periods within a specific genre? For example, since post-911, there has been a significant rise in Zombie films. Do these films or others have similar hallmarks to the disaster film genre as formally dysfunctional texts with propagandist messages?

Secondly, because the disaster films’ messages are for a specific political and cultural climate, would someone watching these movies today have a similar reaction to the messages as seventies audiences? Or are these messages simply outdated for our own time? Thus, it is hoped that scholars will continue, not only to examine the disaster film genre, but especially how texts can operate as formally dysfunctional and potentially disastrous “equipment for living.”


*Carlnita P. Greene (PhD, University of Texas at Austin) is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Rhetoric whose research interests lie at the intersections of rhetoric, critical theory, and popular culture. Christopher A. Greene (M.F.A., City University of New York) is an Independent Filmmaker whose research interests include film and television theory, cultural studies and media history.

  1. Because notions of “high culture” often are steeped in elitism and because culture is more fluid than in the past, we will do not distinguish between “high” culture and “low” culture.
  2. Following Burke and Brummett, we also assert that there is slippage between form and content such that the two are hard to distinguish as they are intertwined.
  3. Habermas’ idea of the public is a very narrow one, according to scholar Nancy Fraser, due to the very nature of using the term “bourgeois public sphere” because it was never entirely public or representational. She reveals the irony of Habermas’ definition explaining: “Of course, we know, both from the revisionist history and from Habermas’s account, that the bourgeois public’s claim to full accessibility was not in fact realized” (in Robbins 9).
  4. Of course, we must note that only a small portion of society is actually shown in the films as various minority groups are rarely seen in them.
  5. We are not arguing that the creators of these disaster films consciously or explicitly set out to create propagandist films in the same way that war films sometimes are created. However, as formally dysfunctional texts, these films do operate rhetorically as such.


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Brummett, Barry. “The Homology Hypothesis: Pornography on the VCR.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 5 (1988): 202-216.

---. Rhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1991.

---. Rhetorical Homologies: Form, Content, Experience. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968.

---. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1966.

---. “The Party Line.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 62 (1976): 62-68.

---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 3rd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.

---. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 3rd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973.

---. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Communication : Ethical and Moral Issues. Ed. Lee Thayer. New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1973: 263-275.

Calhoun, Craig, ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy." The Phantom Public Sphere. Ed. Bruce Robbins. Minneapolis, MA: The University of Minnesota Press, 1993: 1-32.

Gabler, Neal. Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Gregg, Richard B. “Kenneth Burke’s Prolegomena to the Study of the Rhetoric of Form.” Communication Quarterly 26.4 (1978): 3-13.

Griffin, Charles J.G. “The Rhetoric of Form in Conversion Narratives.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 76 (1990): 152-163.

Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998.

---. “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere.” Habermas and the Public Sphere. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993: 421-457.

Hauser, Gerard and Carole Blair. “Rhetorical Antecedents to the Public.” Pre/Text 3 (1982): 139-167.

Heath, Robert L. “Kenneth Burke’s Break with Formalism.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984): 132-143.

---. “Kenneth Burke on Form.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 65 (1979): 392-404.

Jawettt, Garth S. and Victoria O’Donnell. Propaganda and Persuasion. 3rd. Ed. London: Sage Publications, Inc., 1999.

Keane, Stephen. Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe. London: Wallflower, 2001.

Olson, Kathryn M. “The Function of Form in Newspapers’ Political Conflict Coverage: The New York Times’ Shaping of Expectations in the Bitburg Controversy.” Political Communication 12 (1996): 43-64.

The Poseidon Adventure. Dir. Ronald Neame. Perf. Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowall, Stella Stevens, and Shelley Winters. 20th Century Fox, 1972.

Quarentelli, E.L. “The Study of Disaster Movies: Research Problems, Findings, and Implications” Disaster Research Center Preliminary Papers 64(1980): 1-29.

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Schulman, Bruce. The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press, 2001.

The Towering Inferno. Dir. Irwin Allen and John Guillermin. Per. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Fred Aistaire. 20th Century Fox, 1974.

Weier, Gary M. “Perspective and Form in Drama: A Burkean Analysis of Julius Caesar.” Communication Quarterly 44.2 (1996): 246-259.

Young, Stephen. “Movies as Equipment for Living: A Developmental Analysis of the Importance of Film in Everyday Life.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 17.4 (2000): 447-468.

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"Early Disaster Cinema as Dysfunctional "Equipment for Living": or How We Learned to Stop Worry and Love Kenneth Burke; by Carlnita P. Greene and Christopher A. Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

"Everything is Medicine": Burke’s Master Metaphor?

Carly S. Woods, University of Pittsburgh[1]


For Kenneth Burke, humans are part of a diseased and ailing society. Yet while the rest of us are under an anesthetic, too doped up to know what is going on, Burke is partially awake and sees through the fog, watching the surgery unfold. Burke’s mission is to elucidate the curative potential of language and literature. Paying particular attention to biographical influences, this article traces key lineages of the medical metaphor in Burke’s major works. I argue that scholars should take seriously the idea that “everything is medicine” to Burke by considering the way that medicine may function as a master metaphor, or a reading strategy, that allows us to more fully understand his theories of symbolic action, identification, and rhetorical demystification.

Examine random specimens in The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. You will note, I think, that there is no “pure” literature here. Everything is “medicine.” Proverbs are designed for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling.  – Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” 100.

In 1956, Kenneth Burke went into a hospital for a hernia operation. The doctors gave him an anesthetic, but it was only partially effective, and he was awake during the entire surgery. Burke was able to hear what the doctors were saying, “behind the fog of [his] anesthesia and the mystique of medical ethics.” After the surgery, he wanted to recount his experience in the operating room, but found himself shushed and given dirty looks by the doctors around him. One intern even remarked “writers talk too much” and promptly denied him adequate sedation in his recovery period (East 199).

I relate this story, not to prompt thoughts of Kenneth Burke’s hernia, but because it serves as a representative anecdote for the way that Burke understood his role as a scholar of language and literature. For Burke, “everything is medicine.” Throughout his major works, Burke uses medical language in order to elucidate his literary theories. He deals with many aspects of literature, science, and religion, but there is a sense in which all of his work aims to diagnose and cure a sick society.  The hernia operation incident was related in a letter to his friend William Carlos Williams, the celebrated poet and doctor. Burke and Williams were friends for over forty years, and Burke was amazed by Williams’ ability to master both poetry and medicine. As he remarks in a tribute to Williams in 1963,

In some respects, the physician and the poet might be viewed as opposites, as they certainly were at least in the sense that the time spent on patients was a necessarily time denied to the writing of poetry. But that’s a superficial view. In essence, this man was an imaginative physician and a nosological poet. His great humaneness was equally present in both roles, which contributed essentially to the development of each other… Such constant attempts to see things afresh as “facts,” gave him plenty to do. For he proceeded circumstantially, without intellectualistic shortcuts—and with the combined conscientiousness of both disciplines, as man of medicine and medicine man (Language as Symbolic Action 282).

As James H. East notes, Burke’s interest in Williams’ life as poet and doctor was thematic in their correspondence, with medical matters animating nearly thirty letters. Burke’s many questions about physical ailments, sometimes alarmist in nature, led to long-running tongue-in-cheek exchanges by both men regarding Burke’s hypochondria (xxii). Burke also used his correspondence with Williams as a testing ground, attempting to explain his literary theories in ways that would appeal to Williams’ medical sensibilities. There is reason to believe that this mode of translation worked both ways: not only was Burke able to translate theory into medical language, but the exchanges also helped him to see his own literary projects medicinally. Whatever the source of Burke’s fascination with medicine, the frequency of his treatment of the topic in private communication with Williams provides a wealth of material that helps frame his oeuvre.

To read Kenneth Burke’s corpus is a pleasure, but it is also a task requiring a reading strategy. One such reading strategy is suggested by medicinal metaphors. I argue that scholars should take seriously the idea that “everything is medicine” to Burke by considering the way that medical language may allow us to understand his theories of symbolic action, identification, and rhetorical demystification. Metaphors of illness and cure are easily mapped onto social conditions as well as the conditions of the body. Literature cannot only be medicinal for the ailments of society; it can function “surgically,” under the anesthetic of capitalism, of science, or of technology. Burke is partially awake and watching the drama of human relations through the fog of this anesthesia as the surgery unfolds. This essay develops an explorative subset of Burke and body studies, [2] focusing specifically on his ubiquitous use of medical language and suggesting a reading strategy for approaching his body of work. I begin by tracing key lineages of the medical metaphor in Burke’s major works, and then explain the significance of medicine as a master metaphor.

Symbolic Acts: Spiritual Cures & Metaphorical Doses

Burke had a profound interest in myth and ritual,[3] and his ruminations at the intersections of magic, science, and religion utilize the medical language of cures and doses as explanatory tools. The commitment to diagnose and cure societal ills surface in his major works and in the context of his lived experiences. This section highlights the ways in which the doctor-patient relationship can be mapped onto the author-reader relationship to deepen Burke’s discussion of symbolic acts and identification.

One factor that may account for Burke’s perennial fascination with spiritual cures is the influence of Mary Baker G. Eddy. Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement within the United States, was fervently opposed to traditional drugs, instead advocating for the spiritual powers of homeopathic cures. In an interview in 1983, Burke was asked if he was “rebounding from a kind of naïve Marxism” in Permanence and Change. Burke replied that he was instead rebounding from Christian Science, and thus secularizing what he had learned from Mary Baker G. Eddy (qtd. in Feehan 206). He had been raised as a Christian Scientist, but reportedly lost his belief as a child, so this would have been a long rebound indeed (Eberly and Selzer 178).

Eddy’s book, Science and Health, details how she was plagued with illnesses throughout her life until she discovered mesmerism through the work of Phineas Quimby. Eddy built upon its medicine-free technique and the idea of Christian spiritual healing in founding Christian Science (M. Eddy). Eddy “sacralized” mesmerism, whereas Burke secularized Eddy’s teachings (Feehan 211). While Burke’s departure from Christian Science meant that he did not adhere to Eddy’s idea that mainstream medicine was wholly harmful (indeed his hernia operation and relationship with William Carlos Williams proved that he sought mainstream help for his physical ailments), the idea of spiritual healing never entirely left him. In secularizing Eddy’s spiritualism, Burke was able to transfer a belief about the healing powers of God to a belief in the power of literature and art. With this telling biographical detail in mind, we can commence our exploration of Burke’s desire to cure through spiritual and literary approaches.

Throughout his work, Burke sees the body as spiritually connected to poetry. In his earliest book, Counter-Statement, for instance, he describes the literary form as appealing because it so closely mirrors our bodily processes. Literature is more than just words on a page. “The rhythm of a page, in setting up a corresponding rhythm in the body,” he writes, “creates marked degrees of expectancy, or acquiescence” (Counter-Statement 140).  If literature can work with bodily rhythms, it also may have the power to correct those ills that throw off biological harmony. Just as medicine cures the diseases that plague the body, literature may have a curative function, bodily and socially. For Burke, the symbol is medicine for the social ill (Counter-Statement 61).

This recurrent pairing of the symbolic act and the body is exemplified in Burke’s observation that the body can expose mental processes.  If symbolic acts are the dancing of one’s attitudes, than psychogenic illness can be seen as the body’s dance. Bodily ailments are symbolic acts, in that the body “dances a corresponding state of mind, reordering the glandular and neural behavior of the organism in obedience to mind-body correspondences, quite as the formal dancer reorders his externally observable gesturing to match his attitudes.”[4] One example of psychogenic illness is the prevalence of ulcers amongst taxi cab drivers. Even though their eating habits are not much different from workers in similar jobs, drivers tend to endure stress of constant motion, and ulcers manifest as bodily responses to the ritual of the occupational act (Philosophy of Literary Form 11). The mind is a microcosm of the bodily system; the mind is “helping the body think” (“Auscultation” 120). 

This fascination with the close relationship between the mind and body is reminiscent of classical Greek thinkers. In his essay, “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method,” Burke sheds light on the roots of the medical metaphor in his theory of tragedy. Catharsis, he notes, is derived from the Greek word katharma. Greek society saw catharsis as a sort of medicinal purification, a cure. He writes, “a synonym for katharma was pharmakos: poisoner, sorcerer, magician; one who has sacrificed or executed as an atonement or purification for others; a scapegoat. It is related to pharmakon: drug, remedy, medicine, enchanted potion, philtre, charm, spell, incantation, enchantment, poison” (“Othello” 153). By explaining the roots of catharsis, Burke alludes to the belief of some Greek thinkers that rhetoric was an ambivalent drug that both causes and cures disease. In Phaedrus, Socrates equates the process of healing with the process of rhetoric (549), while Gorgias pairs the effect of speech on the soul with the effect of drugs on the body (53). Burke used the metaphor not only to build upon classical rhetorical theory, but also to explain the complex nature of language, and its potential to both cure and cause societal sickness.

The idea that there are diverse ways to approach therapeutic processes occurs in Attitudes Toward History, where Burke discusses how literature performs allopathic and homeopathic cures (44-47). Allopathic (Greek meaning: opposite disease) medicine is a method of treating disease with remedies that produce effects different from those caused by the disease itself. This is what happens in much of mainstream medicine, as when a person goes to the doctor with a fever, and the doctor administers a treatment that cools the body temperature (Arikha 91-2). By analogy, humor is sometimes used in the face of tragedy for its curative function (Attitudes Toward History 43). 

Homeopathic (Greek meaning: similar suffering) medicine is “a system for treating disease based on the administration of minute doses of a drug that in massive amounts produces symptoms in a healthy individual similar to those of the disease itself”(American Heritage Medical Dictionary 250). A commonly cited example is inoculating a human against rabies by administering a diluted dose of saliva taken from a rabid dog. Proponents of homeopathy tend to put more emphasis on spiritual cures than on medical science. Burke’s discussion of homeopathy refers to a theory of homeopathic mediocology which was introduced in the 1800s as the law of similars by the German physician, Samuel Hahnemann, and has since fallen out of fashion (Ullman 33-4).[5] He notes that Hahnemann’s preoccupation with a “nosological trinity” (the classification and belief that all diseases emanated from three essential ‘stocks’: psora (the itch), syphilis, and sycosis) caused his followers much embarrassment, yet they maintained his theories of dosage. Burke questions whether we can reduce to engage the part (homeopathic theories of dosage, rooted in reduction of disease as cure) without also considering the scope of the whole (Hahnemann’s classification scheme), supposing that Hahnemann’s contributions to medicine were fueled by his now discredited taxonomy (Attitudes Toward History 47).

In contrast to the allopathic cure of using humor in the face of tragedy, a plaint or elegy, which conveys sorrow in the face of tragedy, tries to provide some solace for those in grief. These literary forms tend to spread “the disproportion between the weakness of the self and the magnitude of the situation.” There is a certain protectiveness in this sort of wallowing in grief that Burke identifies with the homeopathic (Attitudes Toward History 44).  A plaint or elegy would necessarily provide some sort of spiritual cure— the medicinal metaphor works well here because in times of extreme grief, people often seek remedies like anti-depressants or psychological counseling alongside spiritual remedies. Homeopathy is an aspect of the plaint because

One seeks to develop tolerance to possibilities of great misfortune in small doses, administered stylistically. We may note the broad difference between homoeopath and allopath in stylistic treatments by noting the difference between the man who “coaches” good health by asserting that he “never felt better in his life” (the “allopath”) and the man who, though he might be equally healthy, “protects” himself by conceding: I feel well enough, if only things keep up as they are (Attitudes Toward History 45).

Burke suggests two strategies for dealing with personal health. The first is that of the allopath, which involves a process of self-persuasion in order to keep our bodily organs in good working condition, evocative of his discussion of the two-way relationship between the mental and the physical.

The contrasting strategy of homeopathy guards against the possibility that one’s health may take a turn for the worse by stating that their good health is simply a result of the current conditions—check back tomorrow and the outcome may be different. The homeopath believes that it is useless to try and solve a health problem through traditional antidotes (Attitudes Toward History 45). Instead of handling an illness head-on (“the stronger the antidote the better”), the homeopath will attempt to accommodate the risk, embracing the “‘tragic’ strategy of ‘knocking on wood,’ in systematically welcoming a little disaster as immunization against greater disaster” (Attitudes Toward History 325).[6]

Burke later expounds on what he means by spiritual homeopathy in The Philosophy of Literary Form. He explains that while bread is a cure for hunger, it becomes a poison if you eat a barrel of it.  Just as every drug or medicine has the ability to be toxic if misused, the poet as a “medicine man” can play a tragic or pious role in distributing either a spiritual or homeopathic cure (Philosophy of Literary Form 64-5). This is why the medicinal depends so centrally on identification. Just as the doctor must relate to the patient, the relationship between the poet and reader is primarily one of identification, which may allow the reader to relive experiences in a medicinal mode (Philosophy of Literary Form 413). As Ross Wolin puts it

Burke argues that art is effective as symbolic action when a text prompts the reader to relive experiences. This reliving of experiences occurs in part because the reader and author participate in social structures of meaning that have elements in common. In Burke’s view, the reliving of experience is a form of identification (179).

Medicine as a master metaphor is on full display in Wolin’s description: not only is the doctor-patient relationship mapped onto the author-reader relationship, but the very imagery of illness expresses Burke’s theory of identification. Adult patients who are being cared for in a hospital observe both the “regressive principle” of identification because they are reminded of the experience of childhood, when they were cared for by their parents, and the “culminative principle” of identification because enduring illness makes them simultaneously worried about death (a human condition that supercharges identification) (Rhetoric of Motives 15).

Thus, the poet as “medicine man” deals in metaphorical drugs, seeking to “immunize us by stylistically infecting us with the disease” without allowing us to overdose (Philosophy of Literary Form 65). Just as we would get a small dose of the flu injected into us through a flu shot so that we might avoid contracting the full-blown illness this winter season, the hope is that if a poet presents readers with a story of lived experience that they can identify with, it can function as a way of exposing them, or administering “small doses” of the poetic that can cure their spiritual ailments.[7] Homeopathy thus allows the distillation of the disease into a purified essence that operates as medicine in the body. Drawing on “a kind of inverted Christian Science,” Burke proposes a homeopathic approach to social health (Attitudes Toward History 323, 46). He proffers a tantalizing suggestion:

Recall also our remarks on the function of horror stories in debunking horror, by reducing the vague mental state to the manageable proportions of an objective fiction. Might not a similar process operate if, by inoculation with a physical illness, the focus of disturbance would shift from vague and unwieldy mental terrors to their psychologically more negotiable material equivalents? Thus, instead of the “allopathic antidote,” we should get the graded series” of “homoeopathic infection” (Attitudes Toward History 324-5).
Literature provides a necessary exposure to allow individuals to more effectively deal with the terrors, inequities, and tragedies of the human condition. If these doses of the poetic are not well received, and if the poet receives an “impious response,” then we revert to other attepts at treatment, be it ritual, prayer, or recourse to the scientistic (Philosophy of Literary Form 65).[8]

Rhetorical Demystification: The Good Doctor and the Charlatan

If the poet has the ability to be a “medicine man,” does that mean that the treatment will always be benign? What happens when a medicine man causes an overdose? These questions touch on a second major conceptual theme in Burke’s work that addresses the relations between his use of medicine and his social theories: the drug-like qualities of rhetoric, and the rhetorician’s ability to act as a good doctor or a charlatan.

Burke’s research on drug addicts at the Bureau for Social Hygiene provides another biographical detail that could help explain his proclivity for medical metaphors. The Bureau of Social Hygiene was “a philanthropic organization funded by John D. Rockefeller that researched social problems such as prostitution, narcotics, and police corruption,” where Burke worked from 1928 to 1930 (Jack 446). During his time at the Bureau, Burke studied the effects of drug addiction at the American Medical Association libraries and met directly with medical researchers to discuss his projects. While Burke worked at the Bureau of Social Hygiene for only a short amount of time, this stint accounts for Burke’s facility with and knowledge of the body, and may also lend insight into his attempts to fashion cures within his scholarship. This experience may have also prompted Burke to discuss material medicine, hygiene, and the processes of bureaucratization (Attitudes Toward History 363). Jordynn Jack argues that this time at the Bureau of Social Hygiene did much to inform Burke’s theories of piety, the poetic, and biological components of metabiology in Permanence and Change. It plunged Burke into a world of disease containment where he was able to better understand the affect of drug addiction on the body. Debra Hawhee argues that it was Burke’s experience of ghost-writing a book, Dangerous Drugs, for Colonel Woods at the Bureau of Social Hygiene that sparked Burke’s deep interest in the body, as well as the realization that “both drugs and poetry can be figured as transformative substances, both induce affective change, and both tap into bodily rhythms, creating and increasing receptivity” (“Burke on Drugs”18). Given this potentially sympathetic look at drug use, how can we navigate the blurry line between good doctors and harmful charlatans?

Burke acknowledges that some orators who disguise themselves as legitimate medicine men are really just charlatans who use language to obfuscate and harm.  Those involved in processes of persuasion always have the ability to use their “word magic” for purposes of good or evil:

And since the effective politician is a “spellbinder,” it seems to follow by elimination that the hortatory use of speech for political ends can be called “magic,” in the discredited sense of the term […] The realistic use of addressed language is to induce action in people became the magical use of addressed language to induce motion in things (things by nature alien to purely linguistic orders of motivation). If we then begin by treating this erroneous and derived magical use as primary, we are invited to treat a proper use of language (for instance, political persuasion) simply as a vestige of benightedly prescientific magic. To be sure, the rhetorician has the tricks of his trade. But they are not mere “bad science”; they are an “art” (Rhetoric of Motives 42).
Burke resists the definition of oration as magic, when it should be seen as rhetoric. In his view, poetic, and rhetorical language can be distinguished because the poetic is a kind of symbolic action, while rhetorical language is inducement to action (Rhetoric of Motives 42-3). An orator must choose between using language that either clarifies or obfuscates information in order to induce an audience to a certain action.

As noted earlier, Burke found one “good doctor” in his friend, William Carlos Williams. Another doctor deeply informs Burke’s work: Sigmund Freud. Freud’s impact on Burkeian theories of identification and symbolic transformation has been well-documented.[9] A more fundamental look at how Freud may have served as a model of a good doctor for Burke is necessary as we work to uncover the medical metaphor. Like Freud, Burke was interested in a talking therapy, in which linguistic clarity serves as a means of achieving mental and social health. This therapeutic approach[10] to theory is elaborated in Burke’s essay, “Freud—and the Analysis of Poetry,” as he explores what the Freudian perspective has to offer to the literary critic. Freud, he notes, perfected the art of observation, focusing on psychiatry rather than aesthetics (Philosophy of Literary Form 258-9). The overlap between these fields lies in that neurotic and poetic acts are both symbolic (Philosophy of Literary Form 262). While Freud worked with the libido as a basic category of analysis, literary criticism works with communication as its basic category. Burke expresses deep admiration for Freud, and wants not to quibble with approaches gained through clinical experience. However, Burke is underwhelmed by the scope of Freud’s vision, which operates on an individual rather than on a societal basis: “there is a pronouncedly individualistic element in any technique of salvation (my toothache being alas! my private property), and even those beset by a pandemic of sin or microbes will enter heaven or get discharged from the hospital one by one…” (Philosophy of Literary Form 263). Burke is instead interested in healing societal ills, urging psychotherapy to “broaden its individualistic, isolated co-ordinates to embody attitudes that fit into a larger social texture” (Attitudes Toward History 325). Ultimately, then, we can see Freud as a good doctor who provided a model of talking therapy at an individual level but who did not quite adequately diagnose and treat societal ailments.[11]

Burke was able to position his own work as essentially therapeutic in the wake of Freudian theory—and drawing from Freud, explores the way that language can be used to both heal and harm society. Noting that Freud was in the class of intellectuals exiled from Nazi Germany, Burke points to how Freudian insight about the persecutor as rejected patriarch can be applied socially to explain Hitler’s paranoia about the Jews (Philosophy of Literary Form 260, 275). Although just a brief cross-application, Burke can be seen as assuming his role within the medical model: he applies a “good doctor’s” theory to the perspective of the greatest of charlatans, Adolf Hitler.

We see evidence of the charlatan at work in “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle.” Here, Burke refers to Hitler as a “medicine man” who has found a cure for the sickness of his nation—but he is really a fraud and his medicine is really just snake oil (Philosophy of Literary Form 191-2). When one hears oratorical fireworks, the impulse is to think of it as magic. So while those who were persuaded by Hitler might have thought of him as a magician or spellbinder, Burke wants us to see him for what he really was: someone who used effective rhetorical tactics, but who, in reality, scapegoated rather than cured. Burke calls Hitler a “medicine man,” but in this sense the dictator was only engaging in what Burke calls the “most rhetorical of businesses, medical quackery” (Philosophy of Literary Form 172).

Hitler was able to mystify his audience because he was disguised as a legitimate politician, making all the right moves to trick people into believing his propaganda. By speaking about the nation’s health, and its poisoning and contamination by Jewish bacillus, Hitler used medical language to persuade (Heynick). Hitler’s medicine involved cathartic practices consistent with the Greek sense of pharmakon.  Turning the Jews into scapegoats was a type of ‘medicine’ for members of the Aryan middle class (Philosophy of Literary Form 196). The desire to scapegoat an entire race of people was curative only in that it provided “purification by dissociation.” This allowed Hitler and his followers to get away from any aggravating blame by shifting the focus to the Jews (Philosophy of Literary Form 202). Hitler’s attack on the parliament was another “important aspect of his medicine, in its function as medicine for him personally, and as medicine for those who were later to identify themselves with him” (Philosophy of Literary Form 199). In discussing the parliament, Hitler spoke in terms of symptoms, but as Burke points out, this rhetoric only allowed him to search for a cause that was derived from his medicine, reductive racial theory (Philosophy of Literary Form 201).

When language is used to deceive, rhetorical analysis, at its best, sets the record straight. Burke advocates reading Mein Kampf to uncover Hitler’s rhetorical strategies so that Americans can guard themselves against the dissemination of fascist propaganda, Hitler’s own brand of medicine (B. Eddy 64). If we are at liberty to read the medicinal metaphor back at him, it seems that Burke wishes to “vaccinate” the masses so that they can resist being duped by another charlatan. He acknowledges that the disease will likely never be completely cured, and maintains that word magic “is not eradicable, and that there is no need for eradicating it. One must simply eradicate the wrong kinds and coach the right kinds” (Attitudes Toward History 323-4). If the poet is able to administer doses of the poetic in a measured fashion, we may just find ourselves a spiritual antidote that inoculates us from manipulation. If, however, we confuse snake oil for medicine, or if we overdose on medicine, the delicate balance will be disturbed. Part of Burke’s goal in prescribing the poetic corrective is to try and prevent an American Hitler, and to make sure that his readers can tell the difference between medicine and poison.

Burke comments on context and the fine line separating medicine from poison when he discusses the plight of the drug fiend in the context of piety:

Similarly with the “drug fiend,” who can take his morphine in a hospital without the slightest disaster to his character, since it is called medicine there; but if he injects it at a party, where it has the stigma of dissipation upon it, he may gradually organize his character about this outstanding “altar” of his experience—and since the altar in this case is generally accepted as unclean, he will be disciplined enough to approach it with appropriately unclean hands, until he is a derelict (Permanence and Change 77-8).
As Burke noted during his early research on drug addicts, “we are all drug fiends in a sense, deriving our impetus from drugs naturally produced in the body” and thus it is difficult to cast stones at those who have been duped by ‘bad’ drugs (Jack 461). A person’s orientation makes them privy to the information that ultimately drives these decisions. If a person drinks a bottle that is labeled ‘medicine’, and then dies because there is actually poison inside, they can hardly be considered illogical for not knowing (Permanence and Change 86). If, instead, a person willingly drinks poison, or is warned that their medicine bottle might have been switched and still takes the risk, it is a much different story.

Clearly, the distinction between ‘good medicine’ and poison is a slippery one to navigate. One way to understand this distinction is to map it onto Burke’s discussion of ‘pure literature’ and ‘applied literature’ in “Auscultation, Creation and Revision.” Even the title of this work suggests a connection to Burke’s use of medicine as a master metaphor, as auscultation is, in the medical context, the act of listening for the sounds of certain organs in order to aid in the process of diagnosis (Stedman 75). Any type of literature, Burke acknowledges, involves some manipulation of language to provide us with new ways of seeing worldly situations (“Auscultation” 55). Pure literature is poetry, and is most closely linked with what Burke would consider ‘good medicine’; it serves a therapeutic or prophylactic purpose, but still allows readers to act of their own accord. Applied literature is propaganda or pamphleteering, a sort of poisonous concoction that attempts to convince its readers to take an action without really ‘curing’ any of the worries that may plague them. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between poetry and propaganda because they deal with the same subjects. Yet propaganda does not really cure an ill, nor does it equip readers for dealing with future situations, because it dictates a ‘quick-fix’ solution, and fails to give the readers a chance to make decisions for themselves.  Pure literature gives us the incentive to not just deal with the problem at hand, but equips us to abolish the ills that propaganda glosses over. Readers who seek treatment in literature must make certain that they are receiving ‘good medicine’ by reading critically to check against the excesses of the Hitler-like snake oil that sometimes makes it into the pages of our books.

One of Burke’s most famous sayings is that “literature is equipment for living.”  Poetry is produced to enhance comfort in readers; it is the medicine that both arms them against discomforting diseases like confusion and mystification and provides them with therapy if they get attacked (Philosophy of Literary Form 61). In light of this investigation into the medicinal metaphor, we might revise this saying to be, “literature is medical equipment for living,” for as he observes in A Rhetoric of Motives when exploring the relationship between rhetoric and medicine, medical equipment goes beyond its diagnostic functions. A patient will not be satisfied if they are just handed a cure—it is the examination, the prodding, poking, and testing with medical instruments, the pageantry of the doctor’s visit, that is necessary in order for the visit to be complete. Rhetoric is necessary to supplement traditional medical treatment because “such instruments present diagnosis in terms of the senses and can thus be so consoling that, even when the apparatus can’t restore a man’s health, it can help him die well” (Rhetoric of Motives 172). Just as Plato explained in Phaedrus, rhetoric can have healing properties that can work alongside the poetic in order to repair an ill society. Even though Burke sometimes draws a harsh contrast between devious orators (charlatans) and poets (doctors), his view of rhetoric does not always have to be so unforgiving. When wily orators, slimy politicians, and Hitler-like dictators use rhetoric to mystify, they act as charlatans selling snake oil. When, however, poets and well-meaning orators use rhetoric to explain, cure, and further understanding within a society, a legitimate medicine has been dispensed and rhetoric and the poetic can work hand-in-hand as agencies of healing.

Medicine as Burke’s Master Metaphor

Now that the major strands of the medical metaphor have been traced, how does one make sense of the overlap between Burke’s frequent mention of medical topics in private correspondence and the prominence of medical metaphors in his theoretical works? One possible explanation is that such an overlap can be chalked up to mere coincidence. Yet this reading becomes less plausible after considering Burke’s suggestion that critics should “play cards-face-up-on-the-table” and attune readers to the meanings that lurk behind their figurative language (Attitudes Toward History 262-3). The findings of this essay suggest that when Burke’s oeuvre is read in this way, his deployment of medical terminology might be interpreted as a terministic screen, representative anecdote, or metaphor. While there are elements of each of these concepts that are possible ways of interpreting Burke’s medical language, metaphor seems most compelling. Medicine is not simply a way of seeing many things for Burke. It is also many ways of seeing many things. Burke uses medicine as a device to see literature in terms of something else, to approach artistic realms from many different angles and perspectives. This distinction more closely aligns medicine with his definition of metaphor. Burke considers metaphor to be the literal/realistic application of his earlier term, perspective, stating: “metaphor is a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of a that, or that thatness of a this” (Grammar of Motives 503). 

And yet, not just a simple metaphor, or an extended metaphor, Burke uses medicine as a master metaphor. One of Burke’s four master tropes in A Grammar of Motives, a “master metaphor” is figurative language that becomes capable of rhetorically representing a major theory or principle. There are a couple of hints in this explanation that reveal why the medicinal metaphor serves as a master metaphor for Burke. First, the medicinal metaphor is used by Burke to build a grand theory of literature by amplifying different theoretical concepts throughout his books and essays. As the previous sections lay out, medicinal themes in Burke don’t just occur as single anecdotes, but instead cluster around critical points that prompt the reader to think of language and literature’s wider significance in curing society. Burke’s body of scholarship contains a wide constellation of medical terms, which perhaps appear as if they are operating independently at first glance. However, if the reader takes the time to trace the connections between them, they can be seen as part of a larger system of theoretical work. Medicine as a master metaphor is both a cue to how Burke organizes his work, and also to how he sees his work contributing to the world.

Secondly, the metaphor helps Burke create a system that accounts for differing results: Burke views both poets and Hitler as “medicine men,” which is either confusing or contradicting without a fuller appreciation of medicine as Burke’s master metaphor. The medicinal metaphor helps Burke to distinguish between the dissemination of ‘good medicine’ and ‘bad medicine’. It is worth mentioning here that not only does Burke see things in medicine to help explain literature, but he also sees things in literature that help him to explain medicine (such as his discussion of psychogenic illness). In these instances, it makes sense to think of medicine as a master metaphor because as a system, the master metaphor accounts for these extensions and cross-applications.

If medicine indeed functions as a master metaphor for Burke, a deeper understanding of his use of medical language can lend important insight into Burkeian rhetorical theory. Since he considered metaphor the first of his master tropes, it would thus seem worthwhile for Burke scholars to take note of his use of medicine as a system of organization and explanation for the poetic corrective.  In his “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms,” Burke explains that master metaphors can sometimes aid in the “heads I win, tails you lose” phenomenon in which a system accounts for various, differing results.[12] In urging philosophers to “play cards-face-up-on-the-table,” Burke acknowledges the utility of identifying master metaphors and exposing where the metaphors mix and shift from one to another. In the same vein, this essay has attempted to compile and assemble the “cards” that Burke has turned face up across his different works and theories in order to suggest one hand that Burke and his intellectual progeny can play.

Similarly, this reading strategy suggests that productive future research for rhetorical scholars might include identifying “why he [sic] feels called upon to choose the metaphor he does choose,” and places where the medical metaphor shifts to and mixes with other metaphors opportunistically (Attitudes Toward History 262). After all, even when Burke was exploring the idea of “watching one’s metaphors,” he uses the medical metaphor for clarification:

“Watch your metaphors” could come to mean, for the writer of the future, what “Watch your step” has meant for crowds in the subway. Or, otherwise stated: the checking of one’s imagery is nearest approach, in matters of method, to the quantitative checking of temperature, weight, and blood pressure in physiological matters (Attitudes Toward History 274-5).

Burke is not alone, of course, in using the medical metaphor. Notably, Nietzsche positioned himself and the role of the philosopher as physician of culture while Richard Weaver called for rhetorically-informed social reform in his formulation of a “culture doctor.”[13] Burke’s own career trajectory—from poet to critic— can be seen as unfolding on the medicinal model, as “the medical analogy may be justified by authority, as it has been employed in similar contexts by both a critic and a poet” (Philosophy of Literary Form 65). When his poetry was not taken up as the medicine he hoped it would be, Burke recalibrated the dosage by shifting to literary criticism and social commentary, writing prescriptions for therapy and social healing. The notion that “everything is medicine” may function not only as a tactic for unlocking the Burkeian corpus, but also as an approach to envisioning the possibilities of rhetoric for improving the human condition, with future studies fruitfully viewing rhetorical theory through the lens of the body, its ailments and its treatments.

Burke’s theories placed great faith in the poetic as a cure for many of society’s ills, but he proposes no infallible miracle cure. For those who might point to times when literature does not fulfill a curative function, Burke might respond by saying, as he did in Counter-Statement, that, “we do not categorically praise one remedy above another unless both are intended to cure the same illness in the same type of patient” (186). Instead, Burke’s work demonstrates that, just as with the fog of anesthesia during his operation, he was able to see the potentialities of literature to cure ills when many others had turned to the scientistic.


  1. Carly S. Woods is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. The author would like to express her sincere gratitude to John Lyne, Debra Hawhee, Gordon Mitchell, Damien Pfister, the editor, and the anonymous reviewers at KB Journal for their helpful feedback and enthusiasm at various stages in the preparation of this manuscript. An earlier version was presented at the National Communication Association Convention, San Antonio, TX, November 2006. Please direct correspondence to: carlywoods@gmail.com
  2. Burke’s interest in the body is well-documented by scholars such as Bryan Crable, Debra Hawhee, Jeff Pruchnic, and Kumiko Yoshioko.  Crable traces Burke’s use of the body as dialectic, reading embodiment with Burke’s work on action/motion. Hawhee argues that Burke’s inclination toward the body serves as a counterpart to mechanization, and has explored Burke’s use of Sir Richard Paget theory to discuss the rhetorical melding of mind and body. Her forthcoming book, Moving Bodies, will certainly have more to add to the conversation. Pruchnic seeks to recover the work of the body in Burke by bridging it with cybernetic research Yoshioko details Burke’s use of bodily appeals and the body as a critical focal point for his theory of symbolic action.
  3. See especially Attitudes Toward History, Part II, Chapter I. Burke’s interest in myth and ritual is explored in Laurence Coupe’s Kenneth Burke on Myth.
  4. Burke envisioned the sufferer as an actor who “adopts mimetic expressions” in order to display their attitudinal state. Drawing from psychoanalysis, he develops the idea that asthma could be a mimetic expression of the inability to breathe as an embryo—with the asthma sufferer mentally attempting to recapture the experience of womb-living (Attitudes Toward History 322-3).
  5. Burke’s sense of homeopathy may be different from the “alternative medicines” commonly associated with the term today. Since the early 20th century, the American Medical Association and various medical reports have worked to discredit homeopathy in the United States.
  6. The desire to coach oneself to health has resonance with Burke’s references to Jean Piaget’s studies of children’s evolution from autistic to socialized thinking. Burke refers to secular prayer as “the coaching of an attitude by the use of mimetic and verbal language” akin to Piaget’s observations about children verbalizing inner thoughts as commands (“now you must do X”) and naming objects through fiat (“this ball is a barn”) (Attitudes Toward History 323). Burke also discusses Piaget and the idea of coaching attitudes in his discussion of transcendence, suggesting a connection between his thinking about social health and secular prayer (Attitudes Toward History 337).
  7. More recently, the distinction between homeopathy and allopathy has dissolved in the use of vaccinations, which infect patients with small doses of a virus in order to guard against it, and is considered to be a legitimate action backed by the mainstream medical establishment.
  8. Burke notes that religion has tended to move towards allopathy by employing and dispensing ritual and prayer as treatment (Attitudes Toward History 46).
  9. See Wright, Davis, and Quandahl amongst others for excellent examples of the synergy and challenges posed by reading Burke and Freud together.
  10. The notion of a rhetoric of therapy and its corresponding language has been developed by Dana Cloud.
  11. Freud is just one example of a good but not entirely adequate doctor to Burke. Over the years, Burke took up the cause of many individuals who he hoped would carry out the task of curing an ailing society.  Marx, for example, could be seen as a potential doctor of the social order who influenced Burke but ultimately failed at social healing.
  12. Interestingly, Burke also references the idea of “heads I win, tails you lose” in defending Freud, stating that it means little to simply point out that this is what Freud was up to. He states that the critic must revise Freud’s terms or create a new lexicon for charting the field: “Freud’s terminology is a dictionary, a lexicon for charting a vastly complex and hitherto largely uncharted field. You can’t refute a dictionary. The only profitable answer to a dictionary is another one” (Philosophy of Literary Form 272).
  13. Richard Thames deems Burke “nature’s physician” in his overview of metabiology, identifying him as a healer of nature and humanity. Paul Tongeren explores the physician motif in his book, Reinterpreting Modern Culture, especially chapter 1, while Roger Thompson develops Weaver’s doctor culture formulation and its implications for rhetorical theory. These are just a few of the many figures that either fundamentally or tangentially rely on medicinal or therapeutic metaphors to communicate their theories. 


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--. “Literature as Equipment for Living.” Perspectives by Incongruity. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964. Print.

--. “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method.” Perspectives by Incongruity. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964. Print.

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--. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 3rd ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984. Print.

--. “Auscultation, Creation, and Revision.” Extensions of a Burkeian System. Ed. James W. Chesebro. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1993. Print.

Cloud, Dana L. Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics: Rhetorics of Therapy. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1998. Print.

Coupe, Laurence. Kenneth Burke on Myth: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Crable, Bryan. “Symbolizing Motion: Burke’s Dialectic and Rhetoric of the Body.” Rhetoric Review 22.2 (2003): 121-37. Print.

Davis, Diane. “Identification: Burke and Freud on Who You Are.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 38.2 (April 2008): 123-47. Print.

East, James H, ed. The Humane Particulars: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. Print./p>

Eberly, Rosa and Jack Selzer. “Kenneth Burke at 96.” Rhetoric Review 12.1 (Autumn 1993): 176-89. Print.

Eddy, Beth. The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

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Feehan, Michael. “Kenneth Burke and Mary Baker Eddy.” Unending Conversations: New Writings By and About Kenneth Burke. Eds. Greg R. Henderson and David Cratis Williams. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 2001. Print.

Gorgias. “Encomium of Helen.” The Older Sophists. Ed. Rosamond Kent Sprague. Trans. George Kennedy. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001. Print.

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--. “Language as Sensuous Action: Sir Richard Paget, Kenneth Burke, and Gesture-Speech Theory.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 92.4 (November 2006): 331-54. Print.

--. Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009. Print.

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Plato. Phaedrus. Ed. Jeffrey Henderson. Trans. Harold North Fowler. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Print.

Pruchnic, Jeff. “Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and the Work of the Body in Burke’s Body of Work.” Rhetoric Review 25.3 (2006): 275-96. Print.

Quandahl, Ellen. “‘More than Lessons in How to Read’: Burke, Freud, and the Resources of Symbolic Transformation.” College English. 63.1 (May 2001): 633-54. Print.

Stedman, Thomas Lathrop. The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Print.

Thames, Richard H. “Nature’s Physician: the Metabiology of Kenneth Burke.” Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century. Ed. Bernard L. Brock. Albany: State University of New York P, 1999. Print.

Thompson, Roger. “Weaver’s Culture Doctor: Curing the Commodification of the Word.” Negotiations. 4.1 (2002). Web.

Tongeren, Paul V. Reinterpreting Modern Culture: An Introduction to Frederich Nietzsche’s Philosophy. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2000.

Ullman, Dana. Discovering Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century. 2nd ed. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1991. Print.

Wolin, Ross. The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. Print.

Wright, Mark H. “Burkeian and Freudian Theories of Identification.” Communication Quarterly 42.3 (Summer 1994): 301-10. Print.

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"‘Everything is Medicine’: Burke’s Master Metaphor?" by Carly S. Woods is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

“The Human Barnyard” and Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Technology

Ian Hill, University of Illinois


Ian Hill corrects our simplistic notions of Burke as a Luddite. This article elucidates Burke’s philosophy of technology and his deployment of technology throughout his texts.

In a letter written in the Spring of 1946, Malcolm Cowley described the benefits of a newly-ordered “garden tractor” to his friend Kenneth Burke. Cowley arrested his product promotion before delving into detail. He wrote, “Can’t imagine you buying such, although it would greatly simplify your lawn problem, which, I suppose, you don’t want simplified.” With Burke’s probable negative attitude toward his tractor in mind, Cowley proposed that the “moral lesson that he drew from Burke’s most recent book, Grammar [of Motives],” was “Don’t use Machinery!”[1] Cowley realized that Burke, a self-proclaimed “anti-technologist,” would not purchase the mass-produced tilling machine.[2]

Kenneth Burke spent copious time grappling with the meanings and ramifications of technological behavior. He recognized the waste and destruction that technologies entailed, and these problems constituted one of the central themes that Burke confronted throughout his writings: “Big Technology.” Technology was so central to Burke’s writings that he included “separated by instruments of his own making” as one of his five defining characteristics of humankind.[3] Beyond mere “instruments,” Burke’s concept of technology referred to complex technologies and techniques, like television, gene-splicing, and atomic bombs. Complicated systems of human behavior, such as the “‘technology’ of money as motive,” also contributed to what Burke called the creation of the “technological empire” that “establishes . . . the conditions of world order.”[4]

Indeed, Burke’s writing was fraught with technological anxiety, and his negative attitude toward technology developed over many decades. Burke’s life further exemplified an anti-technological style of behavior; he lived on a rustic farm without running water or electricity well into the 1960s. This anti-technological attitude was manifested in Burke’s initial recognition of the ‘absurdity’ of planned obsolescence.[5] Within a handful of early writings, Burke identified that the codependent problems of economics and technology created a prodigious amount of wasteful overproduction. In his first book, Counter-Statement, he wrote that “overproduction” enabled by “applied science . . . has been, up to now, the most menacing condition our modern civilization has had to face.”[6] Burke emphasized the deleterious effects of technology practice, but he had yet to develop the full apocalyptic overtones that he later assigned to Big Technology. In 1972, Burke reflected upon the years 1930-1931 during which he published Counter-Statement and the essay “Waste—or the Future of Prosperity” that satirized the overproduction economy. He wrote, “I then viewed the cult of excessive technologic ‘progress’ rather as a mere cultural absurdity than as the grave economic problem it now shows signs of ‘progressively’ becoming.”[7] What he once considered an ‘absurd’ threat appeared more alarming, and Burke’s initial attitude later coalesced into a deep distrust of most technological behavior. Technology thus came to serve as a central locus of Burke’s critical agenda.

The “most menacing condition” still threatens humanity’s eradication with atomic bombs, however, so Burke desired to supplant technological authority with something else: he called for a corrective to technology motivated by “symbolic actions.” Burke defined symbolic actions as “modes of behavior made possible by the acquiring of a conventional, arbitrary symbol system, a definition that would apply to modes of symbolicity as different as primitive speech, styles of music, painting, sculpture, dance, highly developed mathematical nomenclatures, traffic signals, road maps, or mere dreams.” Such actions are behaviors not necessitated by humanity’s physiological demands.[8] Symbolic actions are the creative individual contributions to the formation of society, and all attempts to change dangerous behaviors, such as the production of species-threatening technologies, must derive from symbolic forms.

Change motivated by symbolic action constitutes the crux of Burke’s response to technology and his “Critic’s Credo.” In the “Critic’s Credo” from a letter to Cowley in the Fall of 1931, Burke’s “program” calls for critics to direct their criticism to a specific context, or “a program, a discussion as to what effects might be desirable at the critic’s particular time in history.”[9] Although he did not mention technology in his “Credo,” the first paragraph of Counter-Statement’s “Program” focused attention on the increasing destructive power of chemical weapons technology. Such weapons served as a primary element of the “particular cluster of conditions” that constituted the technological context in 1931, when “A more fitting emphasis [than heroism in war] now may be the analogy between war and mosquito extermination.”[10] The “desirable effects” in 1931 were to not annihilate humanity with mustard gas. Hence, his program entailed symbolically countering such problematic technology. In turn, his terminological transformation of technological behavior would be inherently facilitated by rhetoric.

I argue that Burke enacted a rhetorical philosophy of technology, and that the corpus of “boikwoiks,” a term Burke coined to describe his oeuvre, outlined a critical program to counter Big Technology.[11] Before I explore the intertwining of technology and rhetoric in his texts, I outline how Burke framed his conception of the technological problem in response to 20th century American society. This “particular cluster of conditions” was dominated by problems like industrial pollution, genetic experimentation, and advanced weaponry. Then, I argue that his “entelechial principle of perfection” shows both how Burke’s philosophy of technology is rooted in anxiety about the self-extinction of the human race and how it provides a conceptual link between technological extinction and his Rhetoric. I subsequently demonstrate how Burke’s rejection of the instrumental attitude, owing to its reliance on dangerous “terminisitic screens,” provides an example of an imperfect attempt to invent pure technology and “pure persuasion.” The failure of instrumental symbolism to correct its own problems thus led Burke to argue that the way to alter dangerous technology practice lay in a symbolic transformation that would mitigate technology’s symbolic control of human relations. I conclude by arguing that the agglomerated effect of Burke’s conception of technological behavior indicates that he constructed a rhetorical philosophy of technology. By “rhetorical philosophy of technology,” I mean that Burke’s concept of technology entailed that rhetoric motivates technology, and that technology motivates behavior. For Burke, the realms of technology and rhetoric are inseparable because technology and motivation are fundamental conditions of human existence.

“The Human Barnyard”: Observing and Reacting to the Technological Situation

From the massive conglomeration of modern troubles, Big Technology emerged as one of the defining characteristics of “The Human Barnyard.”[12] Burke infused his corpus with responses to the technological situation, and thereby constructed his own critical circumference and terminology to depict ills like chemical wastes and nuclear holocausts. As Burke noted in A Grammar of Motives, “To select a set of terms is, by the same token, to select a circumference.”[13] Burke himself selected terms whose circumference of meaning encompassed Big Technology both explicitly and through association with other societal ills that Burke used to exemplify modern society. The technological nature of industrialism, capitalism, and war further characterize the violence of the American “Give and Take.”[14] In the remainder of this section, I elaborate how Burke’s observations about technology and his conception of situation revealed a preoccupation with technological destruction as the preeminent problem both resulting from and facing human relations. Then, I examine how Burke’s conceived his critical purpose as a rhetorical corrective to Big Technology.

As Burke began his authorial career, a number of technological breakthroughs and tragedies occurred. WWI saw a dramatic increase in killing proficiency; agriculture transformed the Midwest into the Dust Bowl; industrial machinery enslaved factory workers as managers turned to automation; capitalism wasted more and more resources through planned obsolescence and consumerism; and automobiles transformed the American landscape. Politically, Burke watched the technological horrors of Nazi Germany and its concentration camps unfold in fascist Europe, and the Soviet communist experiment transform into brutal Stalinism. At home, democracy did nothing to check the ever expanding powers of corporations and their attendant technological demands. These problems received ample attention from science fiction literature and film, genres that flourished during Burke’s career.[15] Other literary and cultural critics like Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, and Lewis Mumford, chronicled the plight of modern factory workers enmeshed in industrial oppression. Of course, the Bomb added urgency to the technological menace. Nazism, Stalinism, global pollution, and advanced weaponry characterize Big Technology in Burke’s depiction of The Scramble.

This technological situation demanded a comprehensive response, a response as comprehensive as the one provided by French sociologist Jacques Ellul. Ellul’s conception of The Technological Society viewed the entirety of modern human behavior as a manifestation of la technique. He defined “technique” as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency . . . in every field of human activity.” Ellul therefore argued that technique pervades society; it “is related to every factor in the life of modern man; it affects social facts as well as all others.”[16] Burke’s attitude toward technology may appear, like Ellul’s, to overemphasize technology in relation to other problems that plague society.

Burke provided an example of his tendency to amplify “technology” in “In Haste.” Responding to a “strung-out logo” on TV for a telecommunications company Burke admitted that he committed “a kind of ‘synecdochic fallacy,’” in which he mistook “a part of the whole.”[17] Instead of hearing an advertisement about a set of specific telephonic artifacts, Burke wrote, “all I intrinsically hear is ‘whether it’s Technology, Technology, Technology, Technology, or Technology, . . . Technology.”[18] Given Burke’s apprehension of technology’s all-pervasiveness, Mike Hübler’s pentadic analysis of Jacques Ellul’s philosophical conception of technology is apt. In “The Drama of a Technological Society,” Hübler argued that Jacque Ellul’s conception of la technique, which portrayed the rampant invasiveness of technology into every sphere of human life, provides a significant entry point for defining “a rhetoric of technology.”[19] Although Burke did not address technology in as systematic and extensive a statement as Ellul, Burke’s piecemeal elucidation of Big Technology did rival Ellul’s comprehensive assessment of “The Technological Society.”

According to Burke, technology seemed monolithic owing to its global effects. In Attitudes Toward History Burke wrote, “that in going from ‘tool-using’ or ‘tool-making’ to ‘technology’ we have gone from the ‘universal’ or ‘generic’ to the ‘global’ . . . We use the term ‘world empire’ with relation to technology because technology’s vast and ever-changing variety of requirements means in effect that areas hitherto widely separated in place and culture are integrally brought together.”[20] Thus Burke’s conception of technology rivaled Ellul’s conception of la technique, because diverse examples of problematic human technology practice both demonstrated the universal scope of the dangerous technological situation and demanded a corrective response.

Like Ellul, Burke recognized the interconnectedness of all spheres of human activity with technology. According to Burke, “though men’s technological innovations are but a fraction of the ‘human condition’ in general, the great clutter of such things that characterize modern life adds up to a formative background.”[21] The Human Barnyard resulted from a multitude of motivating factors, such as high finance, politics, religion, aesthetics, and the long list of persuasive “God-terms” that Burke compiled in his Rhetoric.[22] In Burke’s conception of situation, “technology” could therefore serve either as a god-like motivating term, in the manner of la technique and Big Technology, or it could serve as a mere factor in a vast, open-ended range of activities. Either way, Burke’s observations of technology again and again emphasized its destructive capacity.

The destructive power of technology and its intertwining with economics and politics comprised what Burke called “The Rhetorical Situation.” In order to define the general “rhetorical situation,” Burke identified the American “human situation” as “characterized by the present conditions of technology, finance, and sociopolitical unrest.” Indeed, “Our identification with these two great unwieldy leviathans—technology and the state—is central to the rhetorical situation as we now confront it.” Burke clarified that the interrelatedness of technologies and terminologies “does not allow me to make a flat distinction such as that, say, between the words one is using and the nonverbal circumstances in which one is using them.”[23] Any response to technology is thus inherently a rhetorical response, since Burke defined rhetoric as “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.”[24] Owing to the influence of technology on the “rhetorical situation,” rhetors “induce cooperation” with “symbolic action” to maintain or alter Big Technology.

The primary role that Burke assigned himself in response to Big Technology was that of world-transforming critic aiming to counter the problems derived from “Counter-Nature.”[25] Burke elucidated his conception of the active critic as part of his motivational purpose. Looking over the entire corpus of boikwoiks, his repeated allusions to technological predicaments and his repeated exhortations to solve them in part defined the circumference of his project. Burke argued that the situational “interrelationships” that a writer covers “are his motives. For they are his situation; and situation is but another word for motives.”[26] Burke framed writing as a motivating symbolic act defined by its situational characteristics, so he thereby declared his own motivation to counter Big Technology by emphasizing it again and again.

Burke defended the importance of fomenting attitudes antithetical to the “cult of powers” that controlled, in part, technology. He wrote to Cowley in early 1942:

[S]o far or so long as I am able, to go on trying to increase our awareness (my own and others’) of the ways in which motives move us and deceive us, and what kind of knowledge the nature of motives demands of us, if we are not to goad one another endlessly to the cult of powers that can bring no genuine humaneness to the world. It would be silly to think that any book, or even a whole library of books, could solve such difficulties. But such books are, I know, one of the steps in the right direction. Until the steamrollers flatten out all.[27]
In the face of approaching steamrollers, Burke kept writing in an attempt to hold the technological menace at bay. Despite the odds against the success of his critical program, Burke considered it his mission to counteract technology’s ills. When Burke’s writing career entered its final stages, the steamrollers still approached, so the critical imperative to counter-counter-nature remained a primary concern.

Thus, the proclivity of humanity to drive itself to the brink of extinction formed the technological context in which Burke formulated his philosophy of technology. This pervasive technological condition also comprised the “rhetorical situation.” As such, technology and rhetoric are inextricably bound together. Technologies and terminologies either maintain or transform society. All the while, humans tend to promote annihilation. In order to integrate this proclivity to exterminate each other into his own critical circumference, Burke generalized that people goad each other to fulfill their goals to the utmost perfection possible. He termed this propensity to seek symbolic perfection “entelechy,” which formed an important component of Burke’s counter-technological critical program.

Rotten with Perfection: Terminologies and Technologies

In a letter written to Cowley on the day of Nagasaki’s bombing, Burke lamented that, “There seems now no logical thing to do but go on tinkering with this damned thing until they have blown up the whole damned world.”[28] Burke referenced the probable technological result of “entelechy,” his gloomy “principle of perfection,” which forecasted the innovation of ever-greater, and hence more perfect, destruction. Engineers, politicians, manufacturers, and militaries exemplified the principle of perfection by constructing the Bomb, but the entelechial principle’s ultimate fulfillment as a weapon entails humanity’s self-extinction.

In “Why Satire, with a Plan for Writing One” Burke defined “Entelechy” as “tracking down the implications of a position, going to the end of the line.”[29] Indeed, Burke’s own thoughts often went “to the end of a line,” and Burke insisted that technology would attain “perfect fulfillment in a perfect apocalyptic holocaust” in nuclear war or “the total pollution of our once handsome planet.”[30] Burke witnessed the perfection of form and matter in not one, lone bomb, but rather the Bomb – the global military system, not in one polluted stream, but global pollution “among the Seven Vast Oceanic Sewers.”[31] “Tracking down the end of the line” of technology always appears to lead to global destruction, so technology represents one of the most rotten forms of perfection to pursue with both rhetorical and technological invention. However, the Bomb failed to annihilate humanity. Despite the motivation to build a perfect weapon, the Bomb thus displayed an imperfect quality.

Burke considered entelechy another of his defining ontological conditions, and he linked it with the rhetorical concept of hierarchy. He argued that “Man is goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order) and rotten with perfection.” As per this ontological condition, Burke argued that all rhetorics, whether technological or not, tended toward perfection. According to Burke the entelechial concept was “central to the nature of language as motive,” so human language would always attempt perfection in form.[32] And, because both symbol use and tool use defined human existence for Burke, entelechy linked these two realms of human behavior. Intertwined attempts to attain perfection in either technology or rhetoric tended to materialize in imperfect forms. Like the failure of technological rhetoric to goad complete technological suicide, all rhetorics fail to attain “pure persuasion.”[33] The concept of entelechy thus links the difficult tasks of utter technological destruction and “pure” rhetoric.

Burke’s entlechial principle provides a pivot point for Burke’s program to counter Big Technology. Entelechy demonstrates how the same terminological motivation that may induce human extinction may also, with critical intervention, correct the problem with rhetoric. “The principle of perfection” united the motivational drive to produce perfectly rotten rhetoric with the drive to produce perfectly rotten technology, as well as the motivational drive to symbolically correct the problem. In the remainder of this section, I describe how Burke conceived his “entelechial principle of perfection.” Then, I argue that conceptualizing entelechy as a primary human characteristic entailed equivalence between destroying the world with technology and destroying the world with words. The continued existence of the world, however, indicates that the “trained incapacities” of rhetors and engineers have produced neither persuasion nor technology yet capable of goading self-extinction. Thus Burke rooted his rhetorical philosophy of technology in the rotten perfection of both machines and language as they failed to materialize species extinction.

Burke appropriated Aristotle’s concept of entelechy, or the “actuality” of the human soul, to show how human motivations compel people to complete their tasks regardless of the harm they may cause. In De Anima, Aristotle used the term entelekheia to describe the realization of form and matter in the soul. In Aristotle’s formula, the soul is the actuality, or form, of matter’s potential embodiment.[34] Burke reinterpreted the concept to apply to all realms of human behavior, thereby “casuistically stretching” the term to include the materialization of the full range of human relations.[35] Burke defined casuistic stretching as a process in which “one introduces new principles while theoretically remaining faithful to old principles.” Burke elaborated about entelechy in Dramatism and Development where he wrote of his casuistic stretch that, “the resources of symbolic action culminate in a possibly non-Aristotelian application of the Aristotelian ‘entelechy.’”[36] Because of his casuistic stretching of entelechy to reflect the “principle of perfection” operating as a definitional aspect of human society, Burke noted that the climax of his entelechy faithfully differed from Aristotle’s entelechial actualization of the mind and body within the individual human soul.[37] Burke thus amplified the term’s contingency from individual anima to species survival while he also generalized the term, applying it to subjects beyond “the soul.”

By conceptualizing the realization of form in matter via soul, Aristotle provided Burke with a term capable of defining human goals as being inducements to speculative perfection. Burke considered this motivation to perfect tasks both a delightful freedom and a rotten necessity. He wrote that the “‘entelechial’ motive . . . is equatable with both necessity and freedom in the sense that the consistent rounding out of a terminology is the very opposite of frustration. Necessary movement toward perfect symmetry is thus free.”[38] The result of such perfect motivation could result in beneficial perfected behaviors, or menacing perfected behaviors, depending on the “trained incapacities” and “occupational psychoses” that guided a specific enterprise.

The concepts of “trained incapacity” and “occupational psychosis” explained that individual behaviors and convictions entailed potential catastrophe if entelechially pursued. In Permanence and Change, Burke appropriated “trained incapacity” from Thorstein Veblen, who “meant the state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindnesses.” In a similar vein, by “occupational psychosis” Burke meant that everyone had a certain orientation to the world, and that a person’s occupations would determine his or her reality, “since they focus attention on different orders of relationship.” One problem with the occupational psychosis is that, “one tends to state the problem in such a way that his particular aptitude becomes the ‘solution’ for it.” Everyone has trained incapacities and occupational psychoses—terms that are somewhat interchangeable—but those of the engineers, technocrats, capitalists, etc. pose the greatest threat to humanity through the relentless entelechial demand for technological progress at the expense of humaneness and the environment.

Owing to its destructive importance to 20th century society, Burke called the “technological psychosis” the “master psychosis,” the psychosis most in need of corrective symbolic change. He further clarified that humanity’s reliance on technology put the “technical psychosis” forward as the most ominous trained incapacity: “In and about all these [occupational psychoses], above them, beneath them, mainly responsible for their perplexities, is the technological psychosis. It is the one psychosis which is, perhaps, in its basic patterns, contributing a new principle to the world. It is at the center of our glories and our distress.” [39] Because all occupations take their terminologies “to the end of the line,” people occupied by technology do the same. Technological problems therefore resulted from the terminological endeavors whose ‘end of the line’ terminated in artifacts like the Bomb and Flit. Thus, the perfection of technology in the production of innovative artifacts proved the success of trained incapacities’ ability to build glorious machines as well as rotten machines. This terminological inability of humanity to perfect universally beneficial technology resulted in a state of ineptitude in which perfection equaled total annihilation. Although goaded toward perfection, the results of ‘progressive” behavior appeared much less than perfect. Rotten technologies and their attendant terminologies were imperfect enough to imperil individual physiologies, and incapable of reversing the problems they created.

As a technological critic, Burke did not discount his own culpability for dangerous technologies. Literary pursuits tend toward rotten perfection just as much as technological pursuits. Therefore, rotten perfection further intertwine terminologies and technologies because literary products rival the entelechial motion toward rottenness of technological products. In “Definition of Man” Burke wrote of the pervasiveness of the “‘entelechial’ principle” that, “Each [scientific] specialty is like the situation of an author who has an idea for a novel, and who will never rest until he has completely embodied it in a book. Insofar as any of those terminologies [scientific] happen also to contain the risks of destroying the world, that’s just too bad; but the fact remains that, so far as the sheer principles of the investigation are concerned, they are no different from those of the writer who strives to complete his novel.”[40] Burke thus argued that the novelist and the engineer produced artifacts and rhetorics according to their respective trained incapacities that goaded them to rotten perfection. Both technological invention and rhetorical invention, aiming for perfection, tended to end up threatening life itself. As a writer, Burke’s rhetoric participated in this rather imperfect process.

The implications of entelechy for Burke’s philosophy of technology mean that humanity faces a constant drive to follow its projects through to their completion, regardless of the probable negative ramifications. In addition, rhetoric facilitates the technological drive to perfection, and itself represents a terminological drive to perfection. Both motivations tend to fall short of perfection and end up leaving humanity to deal with a series of rotten situations, many of which threaten human survival. Even though entelechy has failed to deliver total species eradication, the continued increase in technological problems left Burke to critically attempt to correct the mounting detritus of bombs and Flit by grappling with “instrumentalism,” the attitude and philosophical school that facilitated and propagated the technological conditions that menaced human relations.

Confronting the Instrumental ‘Bulldozer Mentality’ and its Terministic Screens

Burke punned in “In Haste” that, “Technology is the issue, the instrumental principle.”[41] Both clauses in this sentence represented different, but intertwined problems for Burke’s response to Big Technology. Burke recognized both the “issue” of dangerous instruments and the terministic and rhetorical motivations that empowered the instrumental destructions of places rendered infamous by their atomic eradications and DDT defoliations. Because both dangerous instruments and dangerous instrumental attitudes threatened humanity, he identified the “instrumental principle” as Big Technology’s central motivating force. Burke therefore desired to correct the entelechial technological and rhetorical behaviors attributable to people engaged in inventing, producing, selling, buying and, implementing technology under the guise of instrumentalism. Any correction to Big Technology had to address technology’s terminological as well as mechanical roots. Because of the inseparability of technologies and their terms a corrective to instrumentalism must address its terms but not succumb to its terministic screens.

In fact, Burke’s rhetorical philosophy of technology absorbs instrumentalism’s terminology in order to redeploy the terms to transform technology. To elucidate how Burke performs this appropriation of terms, I first define Burke’s conception of the instrumental problem. Then, I show how Burke rejected instrumental ideals by disagreeing with the conflation of human and machine communication. For Burke, conflating humans and machines exposed the terministic screens that facilitated instrumentalism. Burke’s anti-instrumental attitude did not purely reject its terminology, but appropriated it to advance his own critical program. His rhetorical philosophy of technology thus constitutes an anti-instrumental instrumentalism.

Langdon Winner provided a standard definition of instrumentalism in his critique of Autonomous Technology. According to Winner, proponents of “instrumental norms and motives” believed that, “the technically adapted side of one’s personality begins to exercise control over the rest of the personality.” Adherents to this perspective formulated a conception of “social situations such that all problems are ultimately defined in terms of instrumentality and only instrumental concerns have any influence.”[42] The instrumental attitude facilitates the increased destructive power of technology as humans imbue instruments with the same faith that they place in each other to solve problems that derive from technology.

Because Burke made his anti-technological feelings clear, any theoretical approach that either put faith in technology’s supposed inactive neutrality, or the supposed ability of technology to solve its own problems did not suffice for him, to say the least. In his “Dramatism” essay Burke described the attitude that fostered instrumentality as a “bulldozer mentality that rips into natural conditions without qualms.” The activities that characterize this mentality are, “the many enterprises that keep men busy destroying in the name of progress or profit the ecological balance on which, in the last analysis, our eventual wellbeing depends, and so on.”[43] In another critique of instrumentalism in “Variations on ‘Providence,’” Burke responded to “the riot of new disorders that arose as unintended by-products of . . . innovations.” He called the technological attitudes that motivated people to ‘predestine’ the counter-natural Scramble the “instrumentalist fallacy.”[44] This fallacy argues that designing behavior to mimic machines will benefit humanity, and that technological innovation should continue unabated. Instrumentalists, or “technologers,” utilize language that understands the semblance of humans and machines as a basic premise.[45] Blinded by technological spectacle, instrumentalists tend to excuse the “unintended byproducts of technology” as necessary to “progress.”

Burke called the use of such reductive, blinding language a “terministic screen.” Terministic screens emerge as the language used to describe and defend any human activity. Burke argued that, “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality.” An instrumentalist’s terms reflect the successful completion of technological projects, and therefore they select beneficial technological artifacts as argumentative proof of progress.[46] Therefore instrumental language deflects its destructive reality. A nuclear engineer’s experiments and livelihood emphasize the benefits supplied by atomic power while downplaying the menace of atomic holocaust.

According to Burke, terministic screens act as rhetorical blinders, channeling human behavior in certain directions predetermined by the selection of terms. He argued:

Not only does the nature of the terms affect the nature of our observations, in the sense that the terms direct the attention to one field rather than another. Also, many of the “observations” are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made. In brief, much that we take as observations about “reality” may be but the spinning out of possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms.[47]
Engineers, technocrats, scientists, and capitalists ‘spin out’ their observations with technological terms. Engineers identify technology with humanity through their scientific worldview, so they choose the terms of technology to represent human reality, which makes species-threatening technology seem a fated ontological necessity. Entelechially “spinning out” dangerous technologies into doomsday scenarios reflects engineers’ livelihoods, so doomsday terminology facilitates this reality, even while attempting to deflect negative perceptions of the Bomb.

One argumentative symptom of the instrumental ‘master psychosis’ that Burke often confronted was the equating of machine and human communications in order to prove the benefits of the automated control of people. This process reduced humanity to its most machine-like characteristics, much like mathematician Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic arguments. Wiener’s book The Human Use of Human Beings exemplifies the type of instrumental language that Burke criticized, because Wiener modeled his concept of feedback and automated control on human communication.[48] He believed that mechanisms best represent the communicative potential of humanity. Because humans receive “feedback” about actions through memory and language, Wiener modeled his machine communication systems to imitate the human capability to react to information. He wrote:

[T]he physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback. Both of them have sensory receptors as one stage in their cycle of operation: that is, in both of them there exists a special apparatus for collecting information from the outer world at low energy levels, and for making it available in the operation of the individual or of the machine.[49]
Communication appears machine-like because of the innovations that enabled feedback. Because Wiener’s machines process information in a similar way as humans, the distinction between the two entities blurred. The analogy reduces humans to one defining aspect, and Wiener used the conflation of terms to justify his method. He wrote, “Now that certain analogies of behavior are being observed between the machine and the living organism, the problem as to whether the machine is alive or not is, for our purposes, semantic and we are at liberty to answer it one way or the other as best suits our convenience.”[50] Thus, Wiener’s ‘semantic’ equivocation of the word ‘life’ empowered him to redefine human existence in terms of cybernetic innovation. His terministic screens re-construed human existence as the model for and successful mimicry of cybernetic machines.

Because Burke believed humanity overemphasized the relationship between human and machine, he considered their conflation in instrumental metaphors troublesome. Burke therefore rejected the instrumental attitude that equated machine and human communication. Instead, he posited the failure of instrumental conceptions of technology to account for the full range of communication. In “Mind, Body, and the Unconscious,” Burke argued that, “The fact that a machine can be made to function like a participant in human dialogue does not require us to treat the two kinds of behavior as identical . . . [M]an differs qualitatively from his machines, since these man-made caricatures of man are too poor in animality.”[51] In an earlier objection to instrumentalism’s terministic screens from Permanence and Change, Burke argued that, “The exclusively mechanistic metaphor is objectionable not because it is directly counter to the poetic, but because it leaves too much out of account. It shows us merely those aspects of experience which can be phrased with its terms.”[52] Although capable of communicating, machines lack the poetic sensibility to react to changing conditions with altered symbolism. Therefore machine metaphors, like Wiener’s, that buttress instrumentalism lack the power to communicate symbolic action.

Burke’s anti-instrumental attitude did not purely reject instrumental terminology, however. Despite rejecting machine metaphors for human communication, he appropriated instrumental terminology to advance his own critical program. Burke’s own anti-instrumental instruments, or his critical concepts, absorbed instrumental terminology in order to correct it. He therefore offered a technological “Perspective by Incongruity.” According to Burke’s definition, a Perspective by Incongruity is a term that “belongs by custom to a certain category—and by rational planning you wrench it loose and metaphorically apply it to a different category.” Such metaphorical wrenching characterized the realm of symbolic action, the impious poetic manipulation of symbols of authority. The incongruous repossessing of words led the way to “repossess[ing] the world” from the technocrats.[53] Only an unorthodox, impious “perspective by incongruity” can instigate a symbolic change to save the earth from the dangers posed by technology by taking instrumental terms and applying them to anti-technological projects. Burke’s rhetorical philosophy of technology thus enacted an anti-instrumental instrumentalism. He utilized his own conceptual terminology to correct the technology and terminology used by “technologers” to produce bombs and pollutants.

As noted above, Burke made his anti-technological stance quite clear in Counter-Statement. However, Burke’s appropriation of instrumental language imbued his own writings with an explicit instrumental character. In the book’s preface, Burke appropriated an instrumental metaphor to describe his critical means. He wrote of the “Lexicon Rhetoricæ” that “it is frankly intended as a machine—machine for criticism . . . It is a kind of judgment machine, designed to serve as an instrument for clarifying critical issues.”[54] The self-declared instrumental nature of Burke’s “judgment machine” led Star A. Muir to argue that, “Burke expresses a preference for an organic frame of reference, yet the development of his schema of analysis is methodological and instrumental at points.”[55] Indeed, other commentators on Burke’s corpus have noted the instrumental application of Burke’s concepts. William H. Rueckert diagrammed the five dramatistic terms into a “Pentad Matrix” to demonstrate the instrumental “bureaucratization” of Burke’s own critical terministic screens.[56] Although Burke did not contend that his dramtistic pentad was a judging machine, or matrix, like the claim he made of the “Lexicon,” its systematic character has become a critical tool, applied to human behavior in an instrumental fashion. Jeff Pruchnic described two more instrumental manifestations of Burke’s concepts. First, he noted “Burke’s digital reincarnation” as the internet chat room-patrolling Burkebot, and second, argued that “Burke’s Perspective by Incongruity is essentially a technology for retraining human response.”[57] Divorced from his complex corpus, all of the concepts found in the boikwoiks toolbox can be taken out and utilized to hammer out Burke-ian criticism. His concepts are critical instruments that enable the programmed application of Burke’s dramatistic and logological insights. Burke’s instrumentalism, however, was not a pure instrumentalism; Burke did not construct a machine, even metaphorically. Rather, as part of his critical program to counter technology his judging machines are capable of transcending mere matter in motion because they are imbued with symbolic action.

Furthermore, because Burke rejected the concept that technological problems must be solved with technological fixes, his anti-instrumental instrumentalism needed to introduce an incongruous, and therefore transformational, terminology into the language of atomic engineers. Burke suggested an anti-instrumental instrumentalism to symbolically correct the type of philosophy of technology espoused by instrumentalists like Wiener. The destructive problems caused by instrumentalism demanded a corrective technological language. This demand led Burke in A Grammar of Motives to suggest utilizing the terms “technologism” and “operationalism”[58] to constitute an anti-technological attitude. He wrote that, because “something so unnatural as technology developed under the name of naturalism, we might ironically expect that, were ‘technologism’ to become the name for ‘naturalism,’ the philosophy would be the first step towards a development away from technology.” Burke then calls on everyone to call technology “operationalism” in the hope that doing so “would lead to the stabilization of technological operations rather than to the development of new ones. As ‘naturalism’ would lead us, via technology, away from nature, so perhaps ‘operationalism’ might be a way of leading us, in the name of technological operations, away from technology.”[59 As a disabling Perspective by Incongruity, Burke advocated appropriating the technological psychosis’s own terminology to undermine it. In order to counter dangerous terminologies, a critic needed to symbolically dismantle problematic attitudes, like that of instrumentalism, by impiously utilizing the attitude’s own terms. This appropriation would, in theory, be a symbolic act, a potentially transformative corrective force. Burke’s rhetorical philosophy of technology thus both rejects instrumental terminology as well as it embraces it. Corrective symbolism derives from an impious appropriation of the problematic symbolism.

The Rhetorical Purpose: Logological Transformation

According to Burke, the over-arching symbolic structures of society originated in poetic forms, so Big Technology’s corrective must also derive from symbolism. The flippant substitution of ‘operationalism’ to describe the motion of nature that Burke suggested above hardly constituted an anti-technological critical program. Instead, Burke’s more sustained attempt to utilize aesthetic forms, the entelechial principle, and anti-instrumental instrumental terminology coalesced around his Helhaven satire. Burke’s satire served as his symbolic enactment of the critical program to counter-technology

Because Burke argued that the way to reverse dangerous technology practice and mitigate instrumentalism’s control of human activity is symbolic change, a transformative force must alter all of the symbolic behaviors that empower technology, such as money, politics, and art. Burke’s concept of symbolic change thus calls for a transformation of society on all levels, not just the technological. In this section, I first provide an overview of Burke’s general concept of transformative symbolic action before I juxtapose “symbolic action” with Martin Heidegger’s concept of poiēsis to further define Burke’s philosophical technology corrective. Then, I describe Burke’s satirical attempt to correct technologically-driven ecological peril. Thus, Burke enacted his own rhetorical philosophy of technology by attempting to goad transformation of cultural values with his own satirical symbolic action.

Burke’s concept of symbolic transformation entailed overturning trained incapacities with a Nietzschian “transvaluation of all values” – what Burke called a “kind of verbal atom smashing.”[60] In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche defined the “revaluation of all values” as the “formula for an act of extreme self-examination on the part of humanity, become flesh and blood in me.” The act of revaluing involved countering accepted values and truths, so Nietzsche claimed, “I contradict as has never been contradicted before and am nevertheless the opposite of a No-saying spirit.”[61] Burke appropriated Nietzsche’s “revaluation of values” to examine humanity’s pieties and “reorient” them.[62] Burke also recognized his own motivation as a critic to counter and contradict dangerous, yet accepted, truths that motivate human behavior. Thus, whereas Nietzsche contradicted the norms of 19th century European industrial culture, Burke contradicted the norms of 20th century American capitalism and its attendant technological threats.

According to Burke, complete transvaluation best occurs when derived from artistic symbolism as a precursor to greater change, but poetic production is only the bare minimum of generating symbolic change. An aesthetic symbolic action will, in theory, precede other actions that art might goad. He conceded that culture alone would not cause symbolic change, even though he believed change would arise from aesthetics. Aesthetics provide only the initial locus of change. Indeed, one personal motivation to criticize derived from Burke’s effort to create change by altering attitudes with symbols. In “War, Response, and Contradiction” Burke wrote, “To an extent, books merely exploit our attitudes—and to an extent they may form our attitudes.”[63] Burke wanted his own books to form attitudes against technology and capitalism, hence his literary output and work as a propagandist and sloganeer. However, Burke also knew that for true change to occur the aesthetic kernel must transcend mere art and with great rapidity affect all forms of human relations. Burke watched the revolutionary potential of Marxist collectivism stall out, failing to instigate viable correctives to either technology or capitalism. He remained hopeful, however, because historical precedent, as outlined in the first four acts of his historical drama in Attitudes Toward History, demonstrate that symbolic change does occur. The question that remained was whether humanity would survive to see such change take place. In Counter-Statement, Burke argued:

Symbolic change through poetic action must come, or humanity’s future is threatened: Since the body [biological, human] is dogmatic, a generator of belief, society might well be benefited by the corrective of a disintegrating art, which converts each simplicity into a complexity, which ruins the possibility of ready hierarchies, which concerns itself with the problematical, the experimental, and thus by implication works corrosively upon those expansionistic certainties preparing the way for our social cataclysms.[64]
Thus, as early as his first book, Burke located the potential of art to overturn technology’s symbolic power. This appeal to art constituted one of the main focuses of Counter-Statement’s “Program.” Burke further elucidated his identification of aesthetics as “counter-statements” to technological problems. He wrote:
In so far as the conversion of pure science into applied science has made the practical a menace, the aesthetic becomes a means of reclamation. Insofar as mechanization increases the complexity of the social structure (to the point where nothing short of great virtue and great efficiency can make it function without disaster) the aesthetic must serve as anti-mechanization, the corrective of the practical.[65]
This concept of aesthetic “anti-mechanization” corrected the “practical menace” by corrupting technological operations. “Bohemian” aesthetic forms debilitated the efficiency of industrialism. Thus, Burke argued that art can correct dominant social institutions and practices, such as the forces of mechanization.

Since Burke advocated a corrective aesthetic program, he did not condone passivity in the face of dangerous technology practice. Just as fanatical adherence to instrumental pieties created problems, so too did dissipation, or resignation in the face of overwhelming negativity.[66] On the contrary, Burke posited that immoral, impious, unorthodox action causes the kind of societal change necessary to preserve the species, whereas moral and pious “nonsymbolic motions” only uphold the status quo’s path to annihilation. People must transform the symbols that bolster “technologism” in order to rescue society from its “bulldozer mentality.” In his own work Burke attempted to perform such a transformative symbolic action. In one example of his symbolic enactment, his speech to the American Writers’ Congress in 1935, Burke argued that in order to garner further political support the communist movement needed to stop referring to “the worker,” and start referring to “the people.” Burke wrote, “As a propagandizer, it is not his work to convince the convinced, but to plead with the unconvinced, which requires him to use their vocabulary, their values, their symbols, insofar as this is possible.”[67] Just as symbolic action to counter capitalism requires the adoption of the capitalist “people,” symbolic action against Big Technology requires direct engagement with the terministic screens that empower instrumentalism.

Burke’s conception of symbolic correctives to technology comes quite close to Heidegger’s conception of the ability of poiēsis to do the same, as described in “The Question Concerning Technology.”[68] Heidegger posited that only a revolutionary form that transforms all aspects of human relations empowers the ability to produce change in technology, politics, economics, and aesthetics. The symbolic is the form in which change must occur, because the fundamental element of humanity’s relationship with the world is language.[69] Thus, Heidegger’s solution to dangerous technology is also intertwined with the strategic deployment of aesthetic forms.

Heidegger argued, “the coming to presence of technology harbors in itself what we least suspect, the possible arising of the saving power.” The saving power turned out to be the other form of Technē, art. For Heidegger, both art and technology represent forms of revealing, so the same inventive spirit that reveals dangerous technology in practice and in language also reveals the solution. He concluded that, “Because the essence of technology is nothing technological, essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology, and, on the other, fundamentally different from it. Such a realm is art.”[70] Heidegger described the “essence of technology” as the generation of meaning. He wrote, “Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing. If we give heed to this, then another whole realm for the essence of technology will open itself up to us. It is the realm of revealing, i.e., of truth.” Furthermore, “Technē belongs to bringing-forth, to poiēsis; it is something poietic.” The revealing that occurs through invention thus brings forth an insight into the natural relationship of humanity to the world. However, the revealing involved with modern technological progress engenders a different relationship to nature, and hence to humanity. According to Heidegger, “the revealing that holds sway throughout modern technology does not unfold into a bringing-forth in the sense of poiēsis. The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such.” In turn, the challenging of nature through technology altered humanity’s relationship to the world: “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing-reserve.” The transformation of nature into standing-reserve to be used for technological ends, such as profit building and efficiency, obtained authority over everything, including humanity. Heidegger argued, “The name ‘standing-reserve’ assumes the rank of an inclusive rubric. It designates nothing less than the way in which everything presences that is wrought upon by the challenging revealing”[71] The all-inclusive nature of the relationship between man and nature under standing-reserve thus became the basis of human interaction not only with nature but with other humans. In order to recuperate the saving power of Technē, Heidegger posited an inventive reappraisal of poiēsis, because poiēsis offered imperiled humanity a means to counter technology, first aesthetically, but later technologically as humanity socially reinvents itself.

The rising of the saving power through the revealing of poiēsis rivaled Burke’s idea of symbolic action because “thinking” for Heidegger contains the possibility to change the essence of technology. Heidegger’s thinking is a form of symbolic action because it jolts humanity into a new conception of the world similar to the change in perspective that arose from the eclipsing of religion’s importance by science and technology. Thus, both theorists believed that humanity has the capability to control the dangerous nature of technology as long as art germinates a corrective. Art does not act as a corrective itself, but instead creates new interactions between technology and humanity. In Heidegger’s terminology, humanity will no longer grant technology the power to enframe inventiveness in a threatening manner, and in Burke’s terminology, humanity will create a less dangerous orientation to technology through symbolic change. Despite the numerous similarities between Burke’s and Heidegger’s philosophies of technology, Burke never gave up on the potential for symbolic change, and he laid out a more detailed method for fomenting revolution through aesthetics. In contrast, Heidegger did not provide a specific program for an artistic corrective, and infamously later concluded that “Only God Can Save Us” from technological catastrophe.[72]

In order to perform a “verbal atom smashing,” Burke enacted two intertwined concepts – the comic corrective and satire. The corrective strategy that Burke espouses was comic, and the corrective form was satire. Because Burke argued that a corrective to instrumentalism must also derive from problematic technological terms, Burke used entelechial, instrumental terms to produce his own satirical response to “Big Technology.” Burke’s concept of the comic corrective first appeared in a discussion of humor and the grotesque in Permanence and Change, but he gives more attention to the two poetic categories in Attitudes Toward History.[73] Unlike other poetical forms, a “comic frame of motives” contains both the ideal and the material, and hence it, perhaps, avoids the bureaucratization that idealistic frames of reference suffer when people milk ideals for profit.

Burke advocated the comic corrective as the only solution to technological progress as late as Language as Symbolic Action (1966). He had yet to offer his own comic corrective to technology practice, however. That critical situation changed as Burke composed and recomposed “Helhaven.” This series of satires humorously, or humorlessly depending on one’s attitude toward dark comedy, lampoons problems derived from Big Technology.[74] Whether or not Burke’s satirical program is humorous or not, “Helhaven” performs many of his critical paradigms, and it represents his symbolic counter to technologism. Indeed, he based his satire on the “unhappy fact” of “technological pollution,” and he noted that his satire appeared more tragic than comic.[75]

“Helhaven” utilized the entelechial terminology that fueled technological catastrophe to constitute counter-instrumentalism. In “Towards Helhaven,” Burke depicted the entelechial result of technology as the complete destruction of the Earth via pollution. The essay combined a short analysis of satire with a modest proposal that borrows a lot from clichéd science fiction plots and images. “Helhaven, the greatest apocalyptic project this side of Mars,” depicts a bubble community on the moon built to escape the ecological ravishes of technological progress on the home planet.[76] Like a reprise of his Depression-era work, Helhaven essays mirror the satirical enterprise of “Waste—The Future of Prosperity,” which offered an entelechial critique of capitalistic planned obsolescence and overproduction.[77]

Using satire, Burke could “track down the implications” of “Big Technology” and “Counter-Nature” by “going to the end of the line,” he wrote in “Why Satire, with a Plan for Writing One.” Burke argued, “It is thus that satire can embody the entelechial principle. But it does so perversely, by tracking down the possibilities or implications to the point where the result is a kind of Utopia-in-reverse.”[78] His satire thus appropriates instrumental language for his dystopian vision. He desired to transvalue instrumental values that excuse pollution and atomic weaponry by redistributing them in an anti-technological narrative.

The series of “Helhaven” satires also performed Burke’s rhetorical dictum that technologism’s corrective needed to be embodied. In “In Haste” Burke wrote, “I beg, at least, you take to heart my doctrinal lines anent the thesis that out technological (instrumental) innovations become personalized.”[79] Indeed, as a victim of such technological carnage, Burke’s speculative corpse would materialize the catastrophic results of the earth’s saturation with toxic chemicals. This embodiment became tied up with the symbolism that empowered the “technological psychosis” that produced the need for the “apocalyptic project” in the first place.

Thus, Burke argued that symbolic action can lead to change, and humanity can avoid “a universal holocaust” of the likes depicted by his post-earth moon society. Indeed, in A Rhetoric of Motives, written long before Burke embarked on his “Helhaven” project, Burke tied the importance of rhetoric directly to the importance of averting total species suicide. He wrote, “let us observe, all about us, forever goading us, though it be in fragments, the motive that attains its ultimate identification in the thought, not of universal holocaust, but of the universal order.”[80] The terms that Burke direct us to consider in this description of the means to correct humanity’s entelechial pursuit of global extermination outline his theory of rhetoric: goading, identification, hierarchical order. Rhetoric is therefore key to saving humanity from technology’s unintended byproducts, and it points toward the defining feature of Burke’s philosophy of technology: the function of technological rhetoric.

Conclusion: Burke’s Rhetorical Philosophy of Technology

Taken together, Burke’s technologically inflected “rhetorical situation,” his anti-instrumental attitude, his “entelechial principle of perfection,” and his satirical corrective to Big Technology suggest that Burke formulated a novel conception of technology rooted in rhetorical principles. Beyond Aristotle’s conception of rhetoric as a type of technical faculty, or Technē, that facilitates persuasion, Burke’s concept of rhetoric delineates a Technē that affects the deployment of Technē’s own creative output – language and technology.[81] Burke’s concept of rhetoric functions as a fulcrum that negotiates the creation of language and artifacts to induce action.[82] Rhetoric mediates natural, physiological human necessity by upholding or altering the demands of the counter-natural technological environment: people mold technology, technology molds the situation, and people utilize rhetoric to induce remolding technology to transform society.[83]

Burke’s rhetorical philosophy of technology incorporates the close intertwining of technologies and terminologies that determine humanity’s ontological status. Burke argued that humans need to perform inherently rhetorical symbolic actions to counter instrumentalism’s “symbol-guided techniques of technology” with a different set of terms that could perfect less catastrophe-inducing behaviors.[84] Because Burke’s theory of rhetoric is so intertwined with bodily survival and the technological threat thereto, I argue that Burke’s critical program embodies a technological rhetoric. To further demonstrate how Burke elucidated his philosophy of technology, in conclusion I will analyze how technological concerns inflect “Logology,” one of the key rhetorical concepts Burke utilized to explicate the function of language.

Burke’s simple definition of Logology was “words about words.” Beyond the linguistic locus of Logology, Burke stressed that words emanate from bodies, and therefore language and criticism depend on humanity’s physiological safety. Logology therefore emphasizes the intrinsic physiological contingency of language use. In another definition of Logology from “Variations on ‘Providence’” Burke wrote:

Logology, as I thus use the term (meaning etymologically ‘words about words’) starts from a definition that applies physiologically . . . to every human being . . . Namely: our history and prehistory, viewed logologically, from the standpoint of ‘words about words,’ is the written and/or unwritten story of a biological organism that is gestated as wordless foetus in a maternal body, is born wordless, and develops out of its infancy (that is, its state of wordlessness) while acquiring a verbal medium which, in effect, builds up a set of duplicates for its nonverbal environment.[85}
This concept emphasizes the intrinsic interrelationship between human language and bodies that communicate. As a consequence of language’s bodily contingency, the various symbolic manifestations of language, including rhetoric and technology, are also dependent on human physiology.

Owing to Burke’s emphasis on the body, recent scholarship has explored the physiological contingency of rhetoric and “words about words. In “Burke on Drugs,” Debra Hawhee argues that Burke’s experience ghost writing an anti-drug book for the Bureau of Social Hygeine led Burke to develop, “a heightened interest in the body’s role in rhetoric and identity production.”[86] Since Burke emphasized the physiological contingency of logology, such examinations of body rhetoric are warranted. In another examination of Burke’s embodied rhetoric, “Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and the Work of the Body,” Jeff Pruchnic posits that technological rhetoric is a plausible extension of Burke’s theory of language. Pruchnic wrote, “Rhetoric emerges not only as a technology for persuading others but also as a technology of the self used by rhetors to discipline and transform their own habits of response.”[87] As Pruchnic suggests, the physiological embodiment of rhetoric comprises just one possible embodiment of his rhetorical theory. The intertwining of humanity’s symbol use with its technology use entails that rhetorical embodiment is also logologically technological. Burke noted the technological embodiment of Counter-Nature in “Motion, Action, Words.” He wrote of the technological transformation of rationality that, “Before technology was developed, the course of human rationality was straining in this direction, guided towards it as towards a beacon. But now that so many of its ideal possibilities have been embodied in material instruments, the promises that originally infused such rationality have become transformed into problems.”[88] Technological materialization embodies the terminological thrust of human inventiveness, and it serves as a rational justification for additional technological behavior.Technology therefore motivates future technological production. Thus, in the logological framework, human physiology shares with technology a potential to be transformed by symbolic action.

Technology is not only altered by symbolic action, however. Burke argued that technologies, as a form of symbolic action, are also characterized by their world-making function. Burke wrote that technological pre-destiny and “bureaucratization” are “implicit in my provisional Logological schematizing with regard to the destiny of the relation between language and Technology, due to Technology’s radical role in generating a realm of Counter-Nature.”[89] Technology thus possesses a creative force that motivates human behavior by determining, in part, the scene in which humans act.

Logology further stresses the inseparability of technological artifacts and their terms in Burke’s rhetorical framework. As terminologies are deployed for persuasive effect, so too are technologies. Burke argued that because “humanity developed” in a “nonhuman ‘context of situation,’ does not mean that technology is all powerful. Technological ideas and terms “are not merely ‘derived’ from material conditions; they are positively ‘creative’ of material conditions.”[90] As a type of symbolic action, the invention of technologies calls for specific behaviors. In “Variations on ‘Providence,’” an essay that Burke uses to explore the relationship of the term “Technology” to Logology, he emphasized that technologies have a rhetorical character. He wrote, “I would stress the fact that the state of technology itself provides the conditions which open up avenues of ‘pure’ speculation. Instruments and methods are like images, in suggesting new sets of implications.”[91] Therefore the societal role of technology is not mere instrumentation. In addition to technology’s functionality, technology embodies the force to persuade new conceptions of the world.

Thus, Logology, or Burke’s theory of words about words, explicates Burke’s rhetorical philosophy of technology, and his proposed method of correcting the problems derived from Big Technology. Logology necessitates a comprehensive confrontation with the primary threats to human survival – dangerous technologies – in order to invent effective symbolic actions. As a result of the contingency of rhetoric on technological behavior, the potentially transformative function of both rhetoric and technology intermingle to either correct our technological problems or facilitate our probable doom. In contrast to competing philosophies of technology that advocate a political, aesthetic, or instrumental solution to technological ills, Burke conception incorporates all of these perspectives, and any other perspective rooted in human interaction, owing to its comprehensive interrelationship with words, and therefore rhetoric. If technology changes, such transformation will only be motivated by persuading people to action with symbolism, a condition of change necessary to all realms of human behavior. By presuming the overall need for a transformative corrective, Burke did not isolate any one domain of technology or aesthetic as central to this radical change, because he called for widespread changes in all human behavior, not just technology.[92] Burke thus inhabits a view of technology that advocates a programmatic, overarching cultural change that transforms technological thought, language, and practice, in addition to all culture and all society, through symbolic means.

Ian Hill is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois


  1. Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, (1988). The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley: 1915-1981. Edited by Paul Jay. New York: Viking, 273-274.
  2. Burke did not hide his feelings about technology. In a later letter to Malcolm Cowley from early 1952, Burke griped about the interest in technology his son displayed, calling him the “perfect son of an anti-technological pap!” Selected Correspondence, 303.
  3. Burke (1966) often used the term “Big Technology by the time he published “Definition of Man.” In addition to defining humans as “separated from [their] natural condition by instruments of [their] own making,” they are symbol using, inventers of “the negative,” “goaded by a sense of hierarchy, and “rotten with perfection.” “Definition of Man.” Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 13 and 19-20.
  4. Kenneth Burke, (1985). “In Haste,” Pre/Text. 6.3-4: 338, and Kenneth Burke, (1984). Attitudes Toward History. 3rd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 357.
  5. In the third chapter of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, Giles Slade (2006) documented the increasing prevalence of planned obsolescence as it became a normative business strategy in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Kenneth Burke, (1968). Counter-Statement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 31.
  7. Kenneth Burke, (1972).; Dramatism and Development. Barre, MA: Clark University Press, 17.
  8. Kenneth Burke, (1978). “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action.” Critical Inquiry. 4.4: 809.
  9. Burke and Cowley, Selected Correspondence, 198.
  10. Burke, Counter-Statement, 107. Edmund Russell, in War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (2001), demonstrated that the equating of human and insect extermination was a common metaphor used by the chemical industry as it attempted to justify the peacetime production of military chemicals. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  11. Burke and Cowley, Selected Correspondence, 384.
  12. Kenneth Burke, (1969). A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 23.
  13. Kenneth Burke, (1969). A Grammar of Motives, Berkeley: University of California Press, 90. In his “Dramatism” essay, when commenting on the Scene-Act ratio, Burke made a similar claim: “In the selection of terms for describing a scene, one automatically prescribes the range of acts that will seem reasonable, implicit, or necessary in that situation” (450).
  14. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, 19 and 23.
  15. How aware Burke was of the science fiction movement is difficult to judge, given his predominant interest in more scholarly literature, but he definitely had some awareness of the genre. In A Rhetoric of Motives Burke writes a brief passage about “science mystery fiction” (212), and in a letter to Malcolm Cowley written on the day of the Nagasaki bombing, Burke laments about the suddenly non-fictional “era of the Mad Scientist of the B movie” (268). The clearest example that Burke knew science fiction comes from his Helhaven essay. The essay combined a short analysis of satire with a modest proposal that borrowed from stereotypical science fiction plot lines and imagery. “Helhaven, the greatest apocalyptic project this side of Mars,” described a bubble community on the moon built to escape the ecological ravages of technological progress on the home planet. Kenneth Burke, (1971). “Towards Helhaven: Three Stages of a Vision.” The Sewanee Review. 79.1: 20. The Helhaven essay mirrored the satirical enterprise of “Waste—The Future of Prosperity.” When Burke reprised the Helhaven satire, he made the understatement: “I am not good at science fiction.” Kenneth Burke, (1974). “Why Satire, With a Plan for Writing One.” Michigan Quarterly Review. 13.4: 320.
  16. Jacques Ellul, (1964). The Technological Society. Translated by John Wilkinson. New York: Vintage, xxv-xxvi, emphasis his.
  17. Kenneth Burke, (1973). “Semantic and Poetic Meaning.” The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 138.
  18. Burke, “In Haste,” 353.
  19. Mike Hübler, (2005). “The Drama of a Technological Society.” K .B. Journal. 1.2: <2005http://kbjournal.org/>.
  20. Burke, Attitudes Toward History, 357.
  21. Kenneth Burke, (1966). “Medium as ‘Message’: Some thoughts on Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (and, secondarily, on The Gutenberg Galaxy).” Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 410.
  22. Burke enumerated these in A Rhetoric of Motives, 298-301. Such a multitude of terminologies that determined technology practice and that technology practice determined led Burke to posit in his essay on “Dramatism” that, depending on a critic’s perspective, “an agent’s behavior might be thought of as taking place against a polytheistic background; or the over-all scene may be thought of as grounded in one god; or the circumference of the situation.” Kenneth Burke, (1968). “Interaction: Dramatism.” The International Journal of the Social Sciences. Edited by David L. Sills. New York: Macmillan and The Free Press, 446.
  23. Kenneth Burke, (1973). “The Rhetorical Situation.” Communication: Ethical and Moral Issues. Edited by Lee Thayer. New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 263 and 270.
  24. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, 43.
  25. In “Variations on ‘Providence,’” Burke defined “counter-nature” as “the resources made possible by the anthropomorphizing genius of technology.” He grounded his concept of Logology in “Counter-Nature,” or “‘Fulfillment’ via Technology.” Kenneth Burke, (1981). “Variations on ‘Providence,’” Notre Dame English Journal. 13.3: 167 and 181-183.
  26. Kenneth Burke, (1974). The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 20. In this essay, Burke also stated the importance of judging an author’s output and motivations only after the writer had completed his work (20).
  27. Burke and Cowley, Selected Correspondence, 249. Other examples of Burke’s linkage of the role of critics and the problems of technology include his afterword to Permanence and Change, in which Burke rewrote the book’s original final sentences to read: “The unending assignment will be to consider in detail the range of transformations (with corresponding transvaluations) involved in the turn from an ‘early’ mythic orientation . . . to our ‘perfect’ secular fulfillment in the empirical realm of symbol-guided Technology’s Counter-Nature.” Burke further clarified the intertwined importance of language and technology in “Variations on ‘Providence’” where the main argumentative thrust that outlined his concept of Logology also called for providential ecological-technological management, necessitated by human language and bodies’ physical, elementary connections to ecological conditions.
  28. Burke and Cowley, Selected Correspondence, 268.
  29. Burke, “Why Satire,” 314.
  30. Burke, “Definition of Man,” 21, and “Why Satire,” 311 and 323.
  31. Burke, “Why Satire,” 333.
  32. Burke, “Definition of Man,” 16, emphasis his.
  33. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, 285. Burke argued that “you can expect ‘pure persuasion’ always to be on the verge of being lost, even as it is on the verge of being found.” The “Pure Persuasion” chapter of A Rhetoric of Motives linked the imperfect endeavors of innovating perfect technology and perfect rhetoric. Burke noted that the line between technology and language in modern technology “becomes quite obscured” (289).
  34. See Aristotle, (2001). “De Anima (On the Soul).” Translated by J. A. Smith. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon. 555-556 (II.412a-b).
  35. Philoponus’s commentary on Aristotle’s On the Soul (2005) indicated that Aristotle referred to individual perfection, such as a steersman’s, rather than Burkian global perfection. Philoponus said of the term’s etymology and definition that Aristotle “finds that the soule is asubstance in the way of form, which form he calls ‘actuality’ [entelekheia], taking the world from ‘one [hen], ‘perfect’ [teleion] and ‘holding together’ [sunekhein]; for the form is the cause of being one for the matter, and of being perfect, since it both is the perfection of the subject and holds it together. So here he gives the definition of soul, saying it is ‘actuality’, that is, form and perfection.” Further, Philoponus argued that this perfected form existed as an end, not as a potential materialization. On Aristotle’s “On the Soul 2.1-6.” Translated by William Charlton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 8 and 11.
  36. Burke, Dramatism and Development, 32.
  37. Burke, Attitudes Toward History, 229. Burke also said of entelechy in “Why Satire, With a Plan for Writing One,” that, “Aristotle applied the term in a quite broad sense.” Burke “would settle for less” (314). Burke’s amplification of entelechy has some basis in Aristotle’s text, because Aristotle noted that everything knowable and sensible becomes actualized in the soul. Aristotle wrote, “Let us now surmise our results about soul, and repeat that the soul is in a way all things; for existing things are either sensible or thinkable, and knowledge is in a way what is knowable, and sensation is in a way what is sensible: in what way we must inquire” (595 (III.431.b).
  38. Kenneth Burke, (1966). “Goethe’s Faust, Part I.” Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 155.
  39. Kenneth Burke, (1984). Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 7, 36, 44-49, and 242-243.
  40. Burke, “Definition of Man,” 19. Also compare Burke, (1960.) “Motion, Action, Words.” Teachers College Record. 62: 245. Burke wrote in this essay that, “There is no essential difference between the tracking down of implications in the writing of a novel and the tracking down of implications in the perfecting of a device that might obliterate all mankind.”
  41. Burke, “In Haste,” 362, emphasis his.
  42. Langdon Winner, (1977). Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 225 and 231. Further, according to Winner, “the totalism of technological rule becomes more than evident,” even though the technology practices of engineers, bureaucrats, and manufacturers operated without public scrutiny.
  43. Burke, “Dramatism,” 451.
  44. Burke, “Variations on ‘Providence,’” 165.
  45. Burke, “Variations on ‘Providence,’” 171.
  46. According to Burke’s “The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke” (1966), architects and engineers would just as likely identify their successfully completed technological project by pointing to a bridge as they would by talking about a bridge. “A bridge builder, no matter how special his language, has successfully ‘communicated’ with his fellows when he has built them a good bridge.” “In this respect, the languages of the technological specialties confront a different communicative problem than marks the language of the specialist in verse.” Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 261.
  47. Kenneth Burke, (1966). “Terministic Screens,” Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 45-46, emphasis his.
  48. Jeff Pruchnic (2006) also made a connection between Burke and cybernetics, including Wiener in “Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and the Work of the Body in Burke’s Body of Work.” Pruchnic examined form, affect, and transformation in Burke’s early writings to demonstrate how rhetoric folds into both biological and technological matter. Rhetoric Review. 25.3: 297-315.
  49. Norbert Wiener, (1954). The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, 2nd revised edition. New York: Doubleday, 26.
  50. Wiener, Human Use of Human Beings, 31-32.
  51. Burke, “Mind, Body, and the Unconscious,” Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 64. In a similar passage Burke wrote, “The machine is so thoroughly human that it is even the caricature of a human being. It has the efficiency of political cartoons, which over-emphasize some traits of their subjects while under-emphasizing others.” Kenneth Burke, (1962). “Motion, Action, Words.” Teachers College Record. 60: 245.
  52. Burke, Permanence and Change, 261, emphasis his.
  53. Burke, Attitudes Toward History, 308.
  54. Burke, Counter-Statement, ix.
  55. Star A Muir, (1999). “Toward an Ecology of Language.” Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century. Edited by Bernard L. Brock. Albany: SUNY Press, 64.
  56. William H. Rueckert (1994). “Some of the many Kenneth Burkes.” Encounters with Kenneth Burke. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 11. Also see Muir, “Toward and Ecology of Language,” 64.
  57. Pruchnic, “Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and the Work of the Body,” 275-276 and 291.
  58. In this passage, Burke seemed to used ‘operationalism’ and ‘technologism’ as synonyms for the attitude he elsewhere called ‘instrumentalism.’
  59. Burke, A Grammar of Motives, 54-55. Burke (1943) also used the same lines to conclude his previously published essay, “The Tactics of Motivation.” Chimera 2: 53.
  60. Kenneth Burke, (1978). “Critical Response: Methodological Repression and/or Strategies of Containment.” Critical Inquiry 5.2: 409.
  61. Friedrich Nietzsche, (2000). “Ecce Homo.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 782-783.
  62. See Burke, Permanence and Change, 87 and 308-309.
  63. Kenneth Burke, (1973). “War, Response, and Contradiction.The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 235.
  64. Burke, Counter-Statement, 105.
  65. Burke, Counter-Statement,110-111.
  66. In the final section of Permanence and Change added to the second edition, Burke stated regarding “resignation” that, “we believe that in many respects it is the historical point of view which leads to such surrender on the grounds that one must adjust himself to the temporal conditions as he finds them (teaching himself, for instance, to accept more and more mechanization simply because history points in this direction” (271). In A Grammar of Motives, Burke defined dissipation as “the isolationist tendency to surrender” (318).
  67. Kenneth Burke, (1989). “Revolutionary Symbolism in America: Speech by Kenneth Burke to American Writers’ Congress, April 26, 1935.” The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Edited by Herbert W. Simmons and Trevor Melia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 271-272, emphasis his.
  68. Albert Borgmann argued that “technology is the most important topic of Heidegger’s thought,” and that “The technological culture is for Heidegger the decisive environment of humans in the late modern era, and their most fundamental welfare depends on their ability to pass through technology into another kind of world” (420).
  69. In one of his few mentions of Heidegger that appeared at start of “Variations on Providence,” Burke categorized Heidegger’s existentialism as a variety of historicism that considered people “nothing but the products of the particular age in which we happen to live (or, as Heidegger puts it, to be ‘thrown’)” (155).
  70. Martin Heidegger, (1977). The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row, 28, 32, and 35.
  71. Heidegger, “The Question,” 12-14 and 17.
  72. Martin Heidegger, (1991). “Only a God Can Save Us: Der Spiegel’s Interview with Martin Heidegger.” Translated by Maria P. Alter and John D. Caputo. The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader. Edited by Richard Wolin. New York: Columbia University Press.
  73. Burke, Permanence and Change, 111-113.
  74. See William H. Rueckert’s essay (1994) “Kenneth Burke’s Encounters with Walt Whitman” for an analysis of the Helhaven satire as it appeared in various guises in the early 1970s. Encounters with Kenneth Burke. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 185-221.
  75. Burke, “Why Satire,” 311-313.
  76. Burke, “Towards Helhaven,” 20.
  77. Burke called “Waste” a “rudimentary version of my [Helhaven] satire” in “Why Satire,” 308.
  78. Burke, “Why Satire,” 314-315.
  79. Burke, “In Haste,” 358.
  80. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, 333.
  81. In “Definition of Man,” Burke noted that defining language as a tool does not convey the full range of symbolic action. He countered, “Language is a species of action, symbolic action—and its nature is such that it can be used as a tool” (15).
  82. For Burke’s explanation of rhetorical action, see A Rhetoric of Motives, 43-46.
  83. This assertion mirrors Burke’s appraisal of his tripartite arrangement of Permanence and Change. He wrote, “orientation is to formation as disorientation is to de-formation as to re-orientation is to re-formation” (308).
  84. Burke, “Methodological Repression,” 414, emphasis his.
  85. Burke, “Variations on ‘Providence,’” 156, emphasis his.
  86. Debra Hawhee, (2004). “Burke on Drugs.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 34.1: 7.
  87. Pruchnic, “Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and the Work of the Body,” 294.
  88. Burke, “Motion, Action, Words,” 248, emphasis altered.
  89. Burke, “Variations on ‘Providence,’” 180-181. In the afterword to Attitudes Toward History, Burke further characterized the relationship between logology and technology as one in which “Technology” becomes imbued with a world-making function. He wrote:
    [T]he Logological view of this situation is that no political order has yet been envisaged, even on paper, adequate to control the instrumental powers of Technology. Even if you granted, for the sake of argument, that (“come the Revolution”) the utopia of a classless society becomes transformed from an ideality to a reality, there would remain the ever-mounting purely instrumental problems intrinsic to the realm of Counter-Nature as “progressively” developed by the symbol-guided “creativity” of technological prowess itself (424-425, emphasis his).
  90. Burke, “Methodological Repression,” 414.
  91. Burke, “Variations on ‘Providence,’” 167.
  92. Technology historian Arnold Pacey (1983) advanced a similar argument that any solution to technological problems must have widespread cultural and societal import. In The Culture of Technology, he wrote: “In the philosophers’ jargon, it might be seen as the adoption of a new paradigm – a new pattern for organizing ideas.” Furthermore, “the world view we use in deciding what kinds of technique to use is a view which must include perspectives on human organization and their international context as well as specific concepts of technology.” The Culture of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 169 and 175.
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“The Human Barnyard” and Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Technology by Ian Hill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Book Review: Burke, War, Words

M. Elizabeth Weiser. Burke, War, Words. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008.

Reviewed by Ryan McGeough, Louisiana State University

Volumes of Burkean scholarship are devoted to one of two purposes: the study and application of Burke’s writings, and the study of Burke himself. In Burke, War, Words, M. Elizabeth Weiser seeks to transcend (in the Burkean sense) these two camps of scholarship—exploring the necessary relation of Burke’s ideas in A Grammar of Motives within the scene of war in which he wrote. Carrying on in the tradition of Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village and Kenneth Burke in the 1930s, Weiser carefully explores Burke’s various communications with his contemporaries throughout the 1930s and 40s. Where she seeks to differ from past works on Burke is in her method of “rhetoricizing dramatism.” This method asks for a historicizing that recognizes dramatism as both shaped by Burke’s conversations throughout the writing of GM, as well as responding to a scene of war. In rhetoricizing dramatism, we are to recognize it as both a response and an exhortation. By (re)placing Burke within his conversations with the Communist Party, the Old Left, and the literary figures of his time, as well noting his recognition that the world around him was slowly marching back to war, Weiser suggests it becomes possible to better understand Burke’s aspiration Ad Bellum Purificandum.

Organizing her chapters by pentadic terms, Weiser begins Burke, War, Words with a look at Burke’s scene. Noting that Jack Selzer and Ann George “covered extensively Burke’s early career in their invaluable Kenneth Burke in the 1930s,” Chapter 1 focuses on the evolution of four central trends in Burke’s early thought, and the conversations that developed them (p. 7). The first of these is falling on the bias, Burke’s desire to cut across the opposing philosophies and traditions in pursuit of a “third way” that transcended conflict not merely by finding common ground, but by recognizing opposing positions as only two of many possible positions. Though Burke hoped this strategy could help nations avoid armed conflict, it rarely availed him as a tool for transcending the conflicts of his contemporaries. Attempting to transcend the differences between Marxist and aesthetic critics, Burke found both camps merely thought he was from the other. Weiser notes Burke’s second trend as the move towards translation. In attempting to transcend specific positions and philosophies, Burke recognized the importance of helping people to hear opposing positions translated into their own vocabularies. Clearly recognizable in Burke’s later work, he “went beyond mere demonstration of their shared social beliefs and instead expanded his understanding of the role of language in orienting all readers toward reality” (p. 12). The third trend—ambiguity and incongruity, apparent in Attitudes toward History and Permanence and Change, was Burke’s attempt to find a linguistic counter to recalcitrance. Rooted in ambiguity, Burke’s fourth trend was his move towards the comic corrective. Burke believed being able to see the inherent ambiguity of a world of language users in society would encourage a charitable attitude towards those with whom one disagrees, an attitude encouraging the cooperation that made action possible.

Of course, the recognition that “every insight contains its own special kind of blindness” was not always popular to adherents to the philosophies that produced those insights (Burke, 1937, p. 41). In Chapter 2, Weiser focuses on the agents with whom Burke conversed. Focused particularly on the New Critics and critics at the University of Chicago, Weiser finds that in his conversations in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Burke developed the ideas represented in Philosophy of Literary Form. She also contends that Burke’s frustration with being misunderstood in these conversations contributed greatly to his addition of the pentad to A Grammar of Motives. Though these misunderstandings were often caused by Burke’s tendency to fall on the bias, his bias falling also benefited his writing by allowing insights unique to the discussions of his time. Weiser documents a number of the correspondences, harsh reviews, and unwelcomed praise that pushed Burke toward the development of a methodology for dramatism that proposed critics and poets “were not just to examine literature or society, but to diagnose society through literature and to diagnose literature in order to diagnose society” (p. 56).

The need for such diagnoses became increasingly apparent as Burke’s thought developed into the 1940s. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on dramatism as Burke’s antifacist act in the years just before and throughout World War II. In attempting to purify war through an inducement to dialogue, Burke vehemently resisted the mass temptation to follow a political strongman. Defying the trend toward monologic unity that even began to take root in the Popular Front, Burke instead sought to counter the drive to a single-voiced public by advocating instead the “babel” of parliament. Weiser opens by noting that in critiquing Hitler’s Mein Kempf, Burke claims “the parliament, at its best, is a ‘babel’ of voices. There is the wrangle of men representing interests lying awkwardly on the bias across one another, sometimes opposing, sometimes vaguely divergent” (p. 58). Burke’s resistance is far from surprising, as all five of the great strongmen in the conflict offered the something incompatible with Burke’s hope for transcendence: certainty. However, Burke’s opposition to certainty and desire to find a comic transcendence was greatly challenged by a radical shift in scene. As the United States plunged into war in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Burke found ambiguity in short supply amongst his peers. However, the horrors of total war also reinforced Burke’s commitment to a grammar which enabled social action.  By developing the understanding of symbolic action as “both description and exhortation. . . [Burke offered] a new call to arms for a generation that had too often been called to arms—the inducement to a unity of action springing from dialectic” (p. 84). Though it was too late to avert the current war, Burke believed in the power of critic to influence what type of new world would be erected on the ashes of the old.

The book’s final two chapters focus on A Grammar of Motives, with chapter 5 dedicated to the first two parts of GM, and chapter 6 on Burke’s purpose in writing it as illuminated in part three, as well as the response to the book given the rapidly shifting scene into which Burke published it. Weiser provides a close analysis of GM that both clearly analyzes the text and situates it as Burke’s attempt to respond to the war and avoid repeating the mistakes that led to it. As the war climaxed and closed, Burke believed his shift to comic ambiguity and transcendence would provide a beacon to the post-war world capable of guiding them as they paused and contemplated where to go next. However, the pause Burke hoped to capitalize on never occurred. The fall of the Axis powers gave way to the Cold War and the fear of annihilation, which Burke immediately recognized as devastating to his call to transcend fanaticism and dissipation with new linguistic perspectives. Burke’s recognition is nowhere clearer than in his starting GM’s conclusion by stating “so much for the Grammar of Motives” (p. 441). In many ways, his pessimism was well founded—Burke did not imagine the long term significance of GM amongst critics and academics, but he could clearly see that he had written a manuscript for a moment that never materialized.

For those who wish to read Burke as an ahistorical thinker whose ideas entirely transcended the scene in which he wrote, this book is a striking refutation. However, those less interested in Burke the romantic poet and more interested in Burke the Word Man in the parlor will find little that is stunningly new in the text. Yet Weiser suggests that developing our understanding of Burke’s scene actually makes book more timeless—knowing the scene of its origination moves us to know when ad bellum purificandum is precisely the medicine our own time needs. Her project of rhetoricizing dramatism helps us to understand it as a call to action, not academic introspection. What Weiser’s project of rhetoricizing dramatism lacks in terms of covering new ground, it more than makes up for in its careful exploration of existing terrain.

Therein lies the great value of Burke, War, Words—its broad appeal. Seasoned Burkean scholars will appreciate Weiser’s archival work. It is difficult to read Burke’s correspondences throughout the book and not frequently recall aphorisms from Burke’s work in a new light. To those who have struggled with connecting and conceptualizing Burke’s expansive writings (a challenge many of Burke’s contemporaries found overwhelming), these small epiphanies are of great value. Though Weiser’s central focus is A Grammar of Motives, her analysis of Attitudes Toward History and Permanence and Change provide an insightful mapping of the development of Burke’s thought through Grammar, and even as he began work on A Rhetoric of Motives. Accordingly, new students of Burke’s works will undoubtedly find this book illuminating for its clear discussion and detailed contextualization of Burke’s theoretical framework and the world he hoped his writings would help create.

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Review of Burke, War, Words by M. Elizabeth Weiser by Ryan McGeough is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Book Review: Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare

This book is an incredibly rich resource. Newstok has driven all Shakespearean criticism, into a single sheepfold. Even previously unpublished lectures do not escape his searching eye beam. Burke’s dramaturgical writings on Shakespeare have been influential for scholars in rhetoric, drama, literature and the social sciences. Newstok provides a brilliantly written historical introduction and a dense but fluent account of Burke’s legacy. Burke’s criticism of the plays, the sonnets and Burke’s use of figure were scattered throughout his corpus. Newstok has collected, edited and annotated them with helpful cross references. For the first time one can engage Burke’s generative conception of Shakespeare’s inventional powers.

Complementing a review published earlier in the KB Journal, David Blakesley has forwarded us the following review of Newstok’s book posted on SHAKSPER the Shakespeare Listserv.

Newstok, Scott L. (2007) Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare. West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press.

Reviewed by Murray M. Schwartz, Professor, Department of Writing, Literature, Publishing, Emerson College

In the mid-1970s, when Kenneth Burke was approaching King Lear's age, I had the pleasure of inviting him to spend one week a month for a semester with the faculty and students at the Center for the Psychological Study of the Arts at SUNY/ Buffalo. "KB," as we came to call him, would lecture informally in the mornings, usually on Shakespeare, and then meet with students through lunch, when his steady sips of vodka would take him off for an afternoon nap. In the evenings, we would have dinner together, and he would then often play his own compositions on the piano and sing for us. (To understand his singular way of thinking, it helps to remember his love of music. He was the music critic for The Dial from 1927 to 1929.)

It was not KB's playful penchant for neologistic critical terms, nor his jazz-like ability to display quicksilver associations among realms of experience that impressed us most. What engaged us most was his intact skill as a teacher, the specificity of his responsiveness to each text, each student. Unlike some other "mavericks" of the time (but more like our resident maverick, Leslie Fiedler), KB was not seeking disciples, and his methods could be adapted to almost any intellectual pursuit. As in his writings, he was impervious to easy summation; his was a mind unbound, open. He delighted in curiosity and fruitful ways of asking questions, and we delighted in his endlessly suggestive possibilities for evoking symbolic meanings drawn from the Borgesian library of his mind. I have been re-reading him ever since, returning often to the essays on Freud and on Hitler, to his "Definition of Man," and, of course, to the varied essays on Shakespeare. I am always tempted, as he was by Freud's works, and as many of his readers are, to "take representative excerpts from his work, copy them out, and write glosses upon them" (The Philosophy of Literary Form, p. 221). KB invites dialogue, and he has provoked valuable interplay with just about every academic field in the humanities and social sciences.

Scott L. Newstok has now given us, in a superbly edited collection, all of Burke's writings on Shakespeare. Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare brings together fourteen essays, including the classic studies of Othello (1951), Antony and Cleopatra (1964), Timon of Athens (1963), Coriolanus (1966), and King Lear (1969), along with the earlier essays on Venus and Adonis (1950), "Antony in Behalf of the Play" (1935), "Trial Translation (from Twelfth Night) (1933), and the seminal essay "Psychology and Form" (1925). He adds three previously unpublished papers, "Shakespeare Was What?" (1964), "Notes on Troilus and Cressida" (1970-71) and "Notes on Macbeth" (1970s and 1980s), and a fifty-page compendium of all the other references to Shakespeare in Burke's works. A 1972 lecture on A Midsummer Night's Dream is also included to represent Burke's lesser interest in comic form (" . . . I must break down and admit that, with regard to this play, I am still in the woods," he wrote (181).). The volume is an important and timely contribution to Shakespeare scholarship, now that the wave of theory-dominated approaches seems to be subsiding in favor of a more exploratory commentary that is amplified by the technological revolution in communication and publication.

Burke began writing about Shakespeare when America and Europe had recently embraced the rhetorical forms of "public relations" and the techniques of modern propaganda (not yet a negative term) in mass culture. "Proposition: The hypertrophy of the psychology of information is accompanied by the corresponding atrophy of the psychology of form," (24) he wrote in 1925. From the outset, he sought to encompass the full range of "symbolic actions" that gave meaning to and enabled the manipulation of public discourse. Shakespeare became for Burke a central instance of the "dramatistic" formal designs that could generate and fulfill an audience's expectations. Like Shakespeare's, Burke's was an "anticipatory mentality" (14), almost instantly recognizing the extensive ramifications of his historical moment. Burke and Shakespeare share a diagnostic drive; they want to generate awareness of the functions of symbolic acts even as they participate in them, to craft their work and show how they are working simultaneously. In Shakespeare, this is the metatheatrical dimension; in Burke's writings, there is the practice of "thinking out loud," the many ways in which he includes his thought processes in his rhetorical strategies. To be sure, this penchant can make his essays difficult reading. Sometimes, as in his "Notes of Macbeth," he can riff his way from one text to another before returning to his theme of regicide. But if we are steadily attentive, the seeming deflections usually come to function as dilations on his central idea, even when he pauses to engage in a skirmish with another interpreter (as with Clifford Geertz on pp. 189-190).

One pleasure of Newstok's collection is that the editor retains all of Burke's notes and comments on his own thought and composition. Much of this material would likely succumb to the computer's delete button these days, lost forever. Phrases like, "Let us propose," and "Let us assume" initiate provisional thoughts, trial interpretations, ways of seeing and hearing Shakespeare that "awaken in us the satisfactions of authorship," (44), both Burke's and Shakespeare's. We even read of Burke's own dreams as he contemplates Timon's "verbal filth" (108) and links Shakespeare's symbolic structures with his own unconscious forms of thinking. "I tinker tentatively with an experimental procedure which I call 'onei- romantic criticism,'" he writes, as he speculates about the interpenetration of his dreaming mind and the cathartic process in drama. No critic has made better conscious use of what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called the "potential space" of culture, the area of experience that permits the free interplay of inner and outer realities. It is rare these days to see a critical mind so clearly in dialogue and debate with itself, and making use of an enormous range of knowledge, from the Greeks to the present. (I wonder which Shakespeare journal would publish this kind of uncensored material today.)

Burke's general project was to identify the "ingredients" and the "recipes" of symbolic actions and the ways in which aesthetic form creates "arrows of expectation" in its audience. In the drama of symbolic acts, relations among characters invite distributions of attitudes and feelings in the experience of an audience. Burke's interest is primarily in the functions of characters' roles in the play as a whole. Though a drama may exploit some external tension, such as the idea of property in Othello, or the dilemmas of abdication in King Lear (he calls these tensions "psychoses," his most unfortunate term), Burke wants to coax out the authorizing dynamic of the play's action by "prophesying after the fact." The critical act, then, is reconstructive (not deconstructive), an account of the drama that justifies its form by passing its rhetoric through the "appetites" of its audience. (Burke is remarkably interested in both ends of the alimentary canal as metaphors of speech acts.) He is especially preoccupied with the ways audiences' appetites require sacrifice or victimage, hence his focus on the excesses of tragedy. Tragic form, in its poise and rhythm, "perfects" a sacrificial process that is, in a sense, inherent in all symbolic action. (As the symbol-using animal, we humans must "invent the negative" to use and misuse symbolic forms in the first place. The symbol substitutes for the thing symbolized, as the scapegoat substitutes for the sins of the community.)

Burke explored the trajectories of symbolic action in a brilliant array of critical strategies. He assumes the voice of Antony to describe the force and structure of his rhetoric in his funeral oration for Caesar. In the Othello essay, he adopts the position of the playwright to map "the ideal paradigm for a Shakespearean tragedy" (70). At times, he plays the historian reflecting on the difference between Renaissance and twentieth century dictatorships. He is intensely engaged with a host of other important Shakespearean critics of his time. But his most consistent and enduring stance is as the anthropologist of dramatic and poetic forms. Like Huizinga in Homo Ludens, Burke explicates Shakespeare against the background of the aesthetic element in human culture as a whole. For Burke, the music of form, its "eloquence," defines the "truth" of art in an "emotional rightness" that transcends both science and religion in its humanistic logocentricity. (We can see him as America's answer to Jacques Derrida.)

As a student of both Shakespeare and psychoanalysis, I am particularly struck by two related features of the essays collected by Newstok. The first is Burke's argument with the representations of character exemplified by A. C. Bradley, and the second his sensitivity to the bodily basis of symbols and metaphors. For Burke, Bradley's "novelistic" approach to Shakespeare leads to "sheer portraiture, and done in a way that conceals the functioning of the play" (81). Burke's opposition to Bradley's character analysis is fundamental:

For, in contrast with the novelistic 'portrait gallery' approach to Shakespeare's characters . . . one should here proceed not from character-analysis to the view of character in action, but from the logic of the action as a whole, to the analysis of the character as a recipe fitting him for his proper place in the action. . . . (80)

To my mind, Burke is both accurate and unnecessarily limiting. Bradley's style of character analysis is not the only possibility. The psychoanalyst Roy Schafer, for example, developed an "action language" for describing the dynamics of character in both art and life that can serve Burke's purposes well. [1] In drama, the dynamics of character can create the illusion of real persons and place characters in the functional roles of the drama, even when, like Hamlet, their role involves constant tension with their "proper place in the action." Burke discounts this possibility too quickly. Part of Shakespeare's genius was the realization that we are both characters and functions of one another in social life as well as art (all the world is a stage). I think this is one reason that his plays endure so powerfully through historical changes. By narrowing his view of character analysis to nineteenth century portraits, Burke diminishes the significance of his own attentiveness to the language of individual characters in Shakespeare.

Ironically, Burke could be very good at a different kind of character analysis, and here his close readings of individual roles are revealing. By following the language of the Porter in Macbeth, for example, or Orsino at the opening of Twelfth Night, Burke evokes the movement of consciousness in time, and it is this movement, with its shifts of focus and its recurrent idioms that actually reveals the performative dimension of character. By using his own associations to Orsino's lines, Burke recreates the infantile basis for the character's passive-receptive position:

If music be the food of love, play on (1)

As cells absorbing sunlight, as the fetus basking in its womb- heaven, receiving nutriment; not venturing forth aggressively, predaciously, as with those jungle animals that stalk, leap, and capture before they eat, and thus must do hating and injuring -- but simply as larvae feed, let me take in gentle music. (33)

The "arrow of expectation" is here linked to both character development and dramatic function. By playing along with Orsino, Burke is representing the manifestations of a character's consciousness as it moves through "a discreet synaesthesia" from the nourishment of sound to the scent of violets and then to the awakening of an aggressive awareness. Orsino's "pure receptivity is ripped by ambition:

Enough, no more,
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before. (7-8)
And then Orsino awakens to his desire for Olivia. "So, the Duke has gone complete from larval thought to the predatory (they are both in our tissues) -- and is now critical, diagnostic, in quest . . ." (37). "Will you go hunt, my lord?" says Curio.

In less than four pages, Burke has mirrored the elements of Orsino's character that will define his role in the play. The interplay of passivity and aggression weaves through his character and announces the elements of social life that must be brought into balance for the comedy as a whole to succeed. Written in 1933, this brief sketch anticipates a psychological understanding of consciousness, bodily sensation, and infantile experience that would not be systematically studied by scientific means for decades.[2] My point is -- When Burke engages in close reading of character, he gives us a dimension of "dramatism" that can be integrated into his understanding of dramatic form. This is a potential of his critical project that remains to be fully realized.

The pleasure and importance of having all of Burke's writings on Shakespeare in one volume is that it can send any Shakespearean into dialogic thoughts and speculations like mine. As Newstok points out in his fine introduction, Burke has had such inspirational effects on countless critics, including those most widely admired today. He is pro-vocative in the sheer restless energy of his mind. Newstok has presented Burke's Shakespeare in a most meticulously edited volume. In addition to his introductory essay -- itself one of the most brilliantly economic overviews of Burke's style, methods, terminology, and historical position in twentieth-century criticism that can be found in any collection of Burke's essays -- Newstok provides excellent notes and references, leaving no stone unturned. (He realizes that some will find him excessive or deficient, and this has been the case with reviewers.) His compendium of references to Shakespeare throughout Burke's writings contains gems of insight that invite elaboration in many directions. His list of Works Cited would make a good library for any student of Shakespeare. His volume is designed to appeal to several audiences, from beginners to those who return to Burke over a lifetime.

Indeed, Newstok's aim is not only to present Burke as perfectly as possible, but to celebrate and promote him simultaneously. His editorial labors are themselves marked by various forms of excess. If my count is accurate, he lists 213 works in his Introduction. His acknowledgements list about 250 names, including the SHAKSPER listserv. The back cover contains no fewer than six blurbs from luminous contemporary Shakespearean elders. One can easily find a host of admiring journal reviews online, including ten five-star substantial statements at the Amazon.com site for the book. Noticing this pattern of excess, I began to wonder whether Nestock had come to praise Burke or to kill him with kindness? But the lasting result, for me, has been to welcome the abundance and to agree that these essays "still merit a wider audience" (xxxiv). Burke is at least as relevant to the Shakespearean world in the twenty-first century, now literally global, as he was in the twentieth. Bravo to Scott L. Newstok![3][4]


  1. Roy Schafer. A New Language for Psychoanalysis. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1976.
  2. See, for example, Daniel Stern. The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
  3. S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List. Hardy M. Cook, editor@shaksper.net. The S H A K S P E R Web Site http://www.shaksper.net.
  4. DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the editor assumes no responsibility for them.
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Book Review: Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare by Murray M. Schwartz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

The Shape of Thrills to Come

By Andy King

Next issue will feature several interviews with leading Burke scholars.  These interviews are wide ranging.  One scholar will reveal to us that he found Burke “nearly incoherent for more than a decade before finding the key.”  Another is bitter at his colleagues in English for not recognizing Burke’s genius “until it was too late.”  Yet another thinks Burke “had no real system and no evolving idea” and that “we have created a guru out of his scattered ideas.” 

Scholars like Richard Thames, David Cratis Willliams and Jim Klumpp will talk about their Burkean odyssey in the Fall 2009 number.  Don’t miss the next spine-tingling issue coming out in late August.