Volume 1, Issue 2, Spring 2005

Featuring new articles by Mike Hübler, Jennifer MacLennan, and John Logie and new reviews by Keith Gibson and Mark Garrett Longaker.

The Drama of a Technological Society

Using Kenneth Burke to Symbolically Explore the Technological Worldview Discovered by Jacques Ellul

Mike Hübler, University of Alabama in Huntsville

Abstract: In the contemporary project of outlining the worldviews that influence rhetorical contexts, it has become increasingly meaningful to investigate the unique ideological climate precipitated by a technological society. This project carves out a route through which Jacques Ellul's insightful characterization of the technological society intersects Kenneth Burke’s various symbolic analyses of discourse in a technological society. Using Kenneth Burke's dramatism, several Ellulian dimensions of a technological worldview: technical autonomy, necessity and demystification, can be mapped onto a parallel grammar of symbols, a "drama" that features agency as its root term, and the inversion (or convergence) of the agent-agency ratio as its principle dynamic. The technological drama manifests itself in the technological society as a rhetorically dominant narrative that treats human artifacts as if they were primary agents and human artisans as if they were passive agencies through which technologies acted.


THE ART OF RHETORICAL EXPLORATION takes perhaps its most beautiful form on a canvas colored with vivid, concrete human contexts. Indeed, as far back as Aristotle’s notion of rhetoric as the "art of discovering all available means of persuasion," theorists have recognized the central role of context in both constraining and creatively expanding rhetorical choices. Understanding the significance of context as textual critics, we can paint with the extraordinary detail that Marie Hochmuth Nichols used, or with much broader historical, political and cultural strokes as are so notable in Edwin Black’s work. To contrast the styles of these two significant communication scholars, Nichols famously explicates Lincoln’s first inaugural address with seemingly exhaustive research of newspaper articles, speeches and other chronologically related texts that establish the scene, characters, and prominent arguments of Lincoln’s single speech. Black, on the other hand, groups together a broad expanse of rhetorical texts in order to establish that genres of persuasion exists, each characterized by particular stylistic and topical elements holding together over long periods of time. It is the direction of Black’s approach that emphasizes the rhetorical importance of worldviews widely dispersed and enmeshed in a social body over the situated context only relevant to explicating a single text. Identifying dominant worldviews that emerge in a society is a way of generally focusing theoretical investigations of the public discourses of that society.

Worldviews pertain to the elements of culture that texture rhetorical contexts. Cultural practices and social values encourage particular kinds of thinking and writing, making it essential for the rhetorician to elaborate on the kind of ideological climate in which texts are produced.1 By elaborating ideological climate I do not mean that we must identify the particular and personal sorts of worldviews that individuals may have fashioned. Rather, this kind of analysis outlines those prevailing worldviews that are available (even unavoidable) in a society, and that constitute at least the starting point from which individual perspectives emerge. Scientism, authoritarianism, socialism, theism, feminism, racism and egalitarianism are among the many worldviews that have comprised ideological climates at one time or another and consequently have drawn the attention of rhetorical theorists and critics (see, for example, Jamieson, 1976; Lessl, 1989, 1996; Campbell, 1995)

In the contemporary project of outlining the worldviews that influence rhetorical contexts, it takes no special insight to recognize the imperative of this paper, to outline the unique ideological climate precipitated by a technological society. From the first wood-carved hunting gear of Paleolithic times to the complex network of wires, routers, processors and digital information that constitute the present-day Internet, ample historical and archeological evidence exists to justify classifying human beings from all periods of history as homo faber, tool-using animals. But while much may be gained by recognizing technologies as ubiquitous in human culture, something about the modern technological culture seems also to deserve special classification.2

Past eras of social history have been defined by religions, political leadership, wars, tools, and, on occasion, by a single system of technical innovations. The present age, however, has gone by such names as the digital age, the media age, the technological age, the virtual age, the information age and by numerous other labels that signify the unprecedented centrality of multiple, advanced technologies. As Neil Postman argues, technologies no longer simply play a part in our social activities, they have literally begun to define human culture (1992, p. 28). In the face of this, many scholars have recognized the need to account for the unique role that technology now plays in human experience.3 Chiefly, it is the socio-political and moral import of the technical that compels humanists, not just engineers, to study it. A humanistic focus begins with the observation that we live in a world of technology, and leads us to the notion that a technological worldview frames human rhetorical activity.

Because influential philosophers and sociologists have elaborated on this worldview, the rhetorical focus here depends on critical insights adapted from outside of the field. In particular, Jacques Ellul’s description of the technological worldview offers an insightful starting point for the rhetorical exploration of societies that are inextricably bound to complexes of technical artifacts. In the next section, I will explore the significance of the technological "context" using Ellul’s position to establish a framework for discussing the relationship between technology and worldviews. Building on his socio-philosophical analysis, the rest of the essay sketches a rhetorical model of the technological worldview by synthesizing complementary dramatistic insights found inchoately distributed throughout Burke's writing. After reviewing how Burke's dramatism pertains to worldviews, the essay offers a kind of perspective by incongruity4 by revealing the ways in which subtle symbolic constructions frame human agents as being used by technological agencies, rather than the other way round.

Jacques Ellul and la technique

Philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul, in his classic treatise on the technological society, uses the arbiter of worldview to distinguish between old and new technologies. Writing a half century ago,5 Ellul traces through the Enlightenment, French Revolution, and Industrial Revolution what he considers to be a profound change in the cultural pre-occupations of technically advanced civilizations. He characterizes the modern technological society by the pervasive presence of la technique, "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity" (1955/1965, p. xiv). 6 Technique is a sociological drive to transform every human purpose and practice into a systematic and preferably quantitative method that can be measured in terms of its efficiency.

Techniques have been present, to some degree, in every phase of human activity. But the term la technique designates for the last century, the ubiquity and transforming power of technique that has fostered a politico-culturally dominant emphasis on efficient means over human ends. In advanced technical cultures, la technique now preoccupies all human endeavors with questions of process relative to speed, size, quantity, and time, often to the exclusion of questions about purpose, value, and improving the human spirit. Even the American family kitchen, Ellul notes, has been divided into quadrants and organized by the most efficient placement of appliances (1955/1965, p. 326).

La technique should not be confused with any singular technology, method or machine. Although, Ellul does depict the social effects of la technique as the process of human beings adapting themselves to machines, and he notes that machines epitomize pure rational method and efficiency, the central features of la technique (cf. 1955/1965, pp. 5, 395-398). The enduring value of Ellul’s perspective on technique is that he is less interested in the particular artifacts of an industrialized society or information economy (since these artifacts usually change faster than an editor can publish a critical essay on them) and more concerned with the general worldview arising from exponential growth and change in technical praxis.

It has already been noted by communication scholars in media theory that Ellul's work "offers a primary focus for theoretical considerations of modern communications media and their role in human society" (Christians & Real, 1979, p. 83). Ellul’s position also deserves the attention of rhetorical theorists because it makes obvious the role of humanists in critiquing technology. It is precisely human purpose, he believes, that has been displaced in the technological society by an obsession with efficient methodology. In other words, la technique has transformed government agencies, workplaces, educational institutions, and every facet of the human environment into laboratories that test for the efficiency of processes without investigating whether the processes themselves lead to a more civil society, or a happier employee, or a student of greater integrity.

I will use Ellul to build a description of the contemporary rhetorical context. To help explicate Ellul I will occasionally turn to Neil Postman, who many years later offered a less extensive but similar and more accessible socio-cultural critique of new technologies. Postman coined the term "technopoly" to describe "the submission of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology" (1986, p. 52). Technopoly, he argues, is an environment in which meaning can be found only in machines and techniques, not in the creativity and passions of the human spirit. A technopoly seems to be a society that is built upon Ellul's notion of la technique.

Ellul summarizes the unique conditions necessary for the formation of a technological society as follows: population growth, technical maturation, economic milieu, plasticity of a society, and technical intention (pp. 59-60). Economy, available technologies, and the mass of available workers (the first parts of his formula) are more or less the physical preconditions needed for an explosion of la technique. I will focus more attention on plasticity and intention, the latter parts of the formula that speak to the changes in perspective that restructures a society around la technique.

The physical preconditions necessary for a technological society appeared in Western history during the scientific revolution, which allowed more tools to be manufactured in a region and brought tools outside the boundaries of small localities to many regions. However, true technological societies emerged only when the French Revolution and the Enlightenment brought about the necessary social changes by mitigating certain traditional constraints of political hierarchy and religion on individual action and association. In these periods, social taboos that formerly checked the production of la technique eroded and judgments about the proper use and purposes of various techniques changed. After this time, familial and regional social enclaves gave way to more mobile societies and more vocational flexibility in workers, what Ellul terms the "plasticity" of a society. As families become less rooted in particular locations, trades and moral philosophies, employees become more fluid. Massive workforces can be and quite regularly are assimilated and reassimilated according to the ever-changing needs of new technical projects.

The last precondition for a technological society, "technical intention," is similar to what Postman describes as "the surrender of culture to technology." It is the condition of a culture that has allowed itself to be almost wholly defined by its techniques, as opposed to one that subjects the production and use of its techniques to its values. Designing, producing and distributing tools, technologies and other methodological phenomenon ironically becomes an intentional end, rather than a means to perpetuate social or individual goals. In the face of this attitude any skepticism about the social value of a technique tends to be labeled as old-fashioned and narrow-minded.

Once a technological society emerges, at least three fundamental principles sustain and expand it: autonomy, necessity and demystification. By autonomy, Ellul means that a society is so committed to la technique that every method and technological invention finds itself being developed and refined towards its most efficient form and use, as if it were impervious to human objection or intervention. Although he is much criticized for this apparently deterministic view of technologies, Ellul uses the term "autonomous" to make clear that because we have become so entrenched in la technique, no ordinary social effort to promote responsible use of technology or mitigate its presence will ever ultimately succeed in changing the technological scene. A vocal defender of Ellul's position, political scientist Langdon Winner, puts it this way, we are "inextricably caught up in exactly the forms of technology [we now have] and the future holds no significant alteration of existing technological trends" (1977, p. 361). While the notion of autonomy seems extreme, Winner agrees with Ellul that the hope that we can turn back the clock of "progress," or even moderate technological growth at this stage is equally naïve.

Autonomy means that the control of la technique appears to be, for all practical purposes, out of human hands. Each technique seems to follow its own efficient course without regard to its positive or negative moral effects. Postman partly explains this perceived autonomy of objects as a relationship between form and function. He observes that "the uses made of any technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself" (1986, p.7). Human action is partially constrained by the technical context, because prescriptions for action are embedded in technological artifacts.

When we combine the power of a technical structure with the cultural perspective of a technopoly, it means that "once a technology is admitted [into a society], it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do" (Postman, 1986, p.7). Environmentalists may, with limited success, decry a technique's effect on air quality; educators may momentarily force the question of pedagogical value on a classroom technology; and religious activists may temporarily halt the distribution of a technical product that strongly challenges the moral fiber of society. But in the end, a technological society will always set aside these humanist-based proscriptions when they conflict with the goal of bringing measurable improvements to a technique's efficiency. In effect, the ideology of a technological society enables la technique to follow its own course, and all questions of good and bad use will be dismissed as misplaced humanist preoccupations with the scientifically evaluated objectives of a technique. Ellul calls this deflection of human moral concerns the "moral autonomy" of technique.

That technology grows exponentially and irreversibly is a once controversial claim of Ellul that has gained wide acceptance. One can now make a living on the professional speaking circuit as a "digital futurist," predicting just how quickly and profoundly technologies will grow. Hardware manufactures, such as Intel, consider the regular, exponential advancements in their designs to be almost "natural," as evidenced in terminology such as "Moore’s Law." Borrowing from a scientific nomenclature reserved for well-established observations about nature, "Moore’s Law" predicts (so far with reasonable accuracy) that engineers will improve the speed of computer processors twofold every 18 months. One curious factor in Ellul's explanation of this growth is a characteristic of the technological worldview that he calls "technical necessity," the belief that "what can be produced must be produced" (cf. 1955/1965, p. 81). The technical possibility becomes a technical imperative. A culture committed to technical necessity brings about technical solutions to problems that may never arise, pushing the boundaries of the possible without concern for practical consequences. Such a worldview values advancement for its own sake.

Even without the drive of technical necessity, technical growth becomes an inescapable part of the contemporary context because each technique tends to create problems that can only be addressed by introducing new techniques (Ellul, 1955/1965, p. 92). Computers generate so much heat that cooling technologies are needed to keep them operating. The finished wood that smoothes out a basketball court also requires new shoe technologies to gain traction on the waxy surface and to minimize damage to athletes’ feet as they pound up and down the court. In fact, not only must la technique solve most problems unique to a technological society, each new technique used to solve a problem generally introduces a new problem into that society that again must be solved by another technique. Cooling technologies can create intrusive noises that require sophisticated noise-dampening technologies or they can use chemicals that require environmental technologies to safely contain. Basketball shoes, because of the sole that pads feet and adds traction, also increase the risk of ankle injuries that are treated with scientifically improved medicines and technologically improved surgeries, etc. Ellul believes that the cycle of technologies simultaneously solving old problems and creating new problems to be solved by future technologies stems from a kind of disequilibrium, not unlike the way removing pesky mice from a field upsets nature's equilibrium by leaving a long chain of predators with less prey.

The technological equivalent of natural equilibrium has, since Ellul, gained the attention of scholars such as Edward Tenner. Tenner carefully documents a special genre of self-perpetuating technical problems that he calls the "technological revenge effect." Medical technologies that stave off the sudden, traumatic deaths of newborns and children, create chronic illnesses that incessantly plague an even higher number of adults. While machines replace physical labor and all of its immediate dangers, they create sedentary jobs that result in long-term physical discomfort like carpal tunnel or back pains. In other words, Both Tenner and Ellul seem to agree that the cycle of problem solving/creating inventions may settle back into an equilibrium only when every part of a society has been transformed by la technique.

Finally, Ellul characterizes the technological society as one that demystifies the sacred value of every part of society except la technique. New technologies demystify the world around us. GPS systems that follow the technique of longitude and latitude can turn the darkest jungles into mathematical grids with predictable terrain. The fiercest storms lose their magnificence as they become confined to blotches of color on a meteorologist's radar screen easily viewed on a television set in the comfort of your home. No miracle can pass muster in the technological age without its mystery being challenged by an electron microscope, carbon dating, digital modeling, or some other technique. It seems "everything can be called into question (God first of all), except technical progress" (Ellul, 1955/1965, p. 82). The only sacred left in a technological society is la technique itself. And it is embraced with near dogmatic and perhaps naïve faith sometimes expressed in the belief that "whenever a difficulty arises, ‘technical progress will deal with it" (Ellul, 1990, p. 21).

Like technical necessity and autonomy, the sacred position of la technique in a society says more about the worldview espoused by its citizens than it does about the essence of technological artifacts, and it is this worldview that helps us make sense of contemporary rhetorical activity. La technique may be the most substantial element of the contemporary rhetorical context. Ellul's critique raises more questions about the ontology, epistemology and axiology of the technological society than about its discourse.7 It remains for critics to adapt his framework so it can be used to explore the discourse of a technological society. As technologies permeate more of our everyday activities they come nearer the center of our worldview, making it more important for rhetoricians to uncover how their presence impacts the modes of persuasion. New topoi, new forms of eloquence, and new communicative strategies arise, not just from the mediating effects of communication technology, but because of the way la technique infuses values, purpose, motivation, and the whole fabric of rhetorical contexts. Rhetorical theory can illuminate the technological society, but only if the relationship of rhetoric to technology is first made clearer.8

A Rhetoric of Technology

To fully define a "rhetoric of technology," or the overlapping spaces between rhetoric and technology, would require an additional essay. For the moment, a preliminary outline of the relationship between technology and rhetoric will serve to elucidate the need for theory-building that will open up within Ellul's concept of the technological society a possible entry point for rhetorical analysis. Communication scholars have looked, albeit infrequently, at the communicative dimensions of technology in five general ways.

First, in the "cybernetic" view, technology is taken to be a "speaker" and/or "audience" in the model of communicative interactions, rather than a channel through which human beings exchange messages (cf. Kaminski, 1997).9 From this perspective, the process of programming a VCR is a communicative interaction where you as "speaker" instruct the VCR as "audience." As the VCR responds with blinks, beeps, or text messages, it becomes a "speaker" providing feedback or additional suggestions. We communicate with technologies every time we set our alarm clocks, operate our garage door openers, and request money from Automated Teller Machines. It may seem awkward to count as "speaker" a machine that emits monotone sounds, displays canned text and gestures with mechanical movements, but cybernetics defines communication more by function than form. Further, the form sometimes does resemble more traditional communicative interaction, such as when we have "conversations" with automated phone services that feature voice recognition. The visual and oral signaling of technological artifacts count as intentional communication, whether they are viewed as deferred human communication (a planned response programmed by an engineer) or as machine initiated communication (the sentience imbued to machines by AI and other techniques).10

A second view of the rhetoric of technology finds rhetorical strategies and constraints embedded in objects, even when an inventor or manufacturer did not intend to place them there. Technological artifacts in this view do not have to literally emit messages of some kind to be labeled rhetorical. This is analogous to Langdon Winner's position that "artifacts have politics" sometimes beyond the political intention of their inventors or users (1986, pp. 19-39). For example, a nuclear reactor facility requires a more hierarchical, authoritarian governing system to control it, because of the extremely volatile, hazardous nature of nuclear reactions. No matter how democratic the nuclear scientists or engineers responsible for the plant, relying on a majority vote to make operations decisions might lead to a global scale catastrophe. The plant inherently, so to speak, requires a particular kind of political order.

What is added by saying that artifacts might be not only political, but also rhetorical? Clearly we attribute symbolic value to different technologies. Movie makers can persuade an audience that something very high-tech is happening in a scene, even without dialogue, because most movie-goers interpret shiny, aerodynamically shaped machines with many blinking LEDs as symbols of technological sophistication. We might also view the rhetoric of an artifact as the way its form determines its rhetorical function. Doug Brent and J. David Bolter (1991) have argued that hypertext technology inherently encourages textual links to competing ideologies and gives presence to marginal discourses. In part, this is because the personality and original purposes of its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee (see Weaving the Web), found their way into the design of hypertext, but not all of its potentials and constraints were anticipated, let alone intentionally designed by Berners-Lee.

A third view of the rhetoric of technology is found in media studies. Technology as media in some ways takes us farther away from traditional rhetorical studies, because of its association with mass communication; but in other ways it is a more conventional approach than the previous two, because it relegates technology to the more traditional role of "channel" within the communication model. Jim Chesebro (1989, 1995, 1999) has long advocated this media view, particularly out of concern that tools formulated to critique speeches will not suffice to illuminate the variety of rhetorics now produced by computer-mediated technologies. What differentiates the rhetorical approach to media from the mass communication perspective is the kind of questions asked of mediated discourse. The rhetorician might ask how media affect the linearity of arguments, the ethos of speaker, or the style of examples used in an appeal. Each communication technology constitutes a somewhat different form of "text" with its own rhetorical boundaries. It is also true that rhetoric about a medium ("You can't believe everything you hear on TV" or "the Internet is like the Wild West") affects the rhetoric carried by a medium, so that oral speeches carried by little more than air waves may still impact the rhetorical power of other mediated discourse. The rhetoric about a medium brings us to our last definitions of the rhetoric of technology.

The final two approaches both feature discourse. One approach stems from the more established subfield, the rhetoric of science. Because most rhetoricians of science engage the technical discourse of scientists, rhetoricians of technology influenced by this group take the "rhetoric of technology" to be the technical discourse of engineers or technical writers, comprising their particular forms of argument, the expectations of the technical audience, their understanding of expertise, and so forth. Certainly this discourse begets creative ideas that find form in new technological inventions and many of a society's perceptions about the nature of technology originate in technical discourse. Talk about technology, however, is not limited to the specialized forums of technical journals. A final approach to the rhetoric of technology discovers potent arguments and assumptions about technology in everyday public discourse that are used to move audiences to all sorts of activities, even non-technological ones. Politicians, educators, jurists, and all sorts of communicators persuade by invoking technological topoi and appealing to human fascination with technological inventions. For example, a legislator can successfully argue that funds be spent on new equipment rather than teachers' wages, because citizens believe that the growth of computers in the classroom is inevitable and because the mystery of computers seems to convince us that the very proximity of students to computers will make kids smarter.

Kenneth Burke

The multiple intersections between technology and rhetoric, coupled with the profound effect of technology on worldview, underscore the importance of understanding rhetoric in a technological age. As one of many possible exploratory steps towards refining critical, rhetorical perspectives on what Ellul terms the "technological society," I will excavate the Burkean canon for relevant theoretical insights on the technological worldview. The use of Burke fits the purpose of this study for two reasons. First, Burke's approach to rhetorical studies easily lends itself to the study of worldviews (see Brown, 1978 and Brummett, 1979, as examples of incorporating Burkean methods into a rhetorical analysis of worldview or perspective). Kathleen Jamieson points to Burke's dramatistic pentad, in particular, as a way to explore the implications of a worldview (or a Weltanschauung) for discursive valuations (1976, p. 5). I will narrow my focus to Burke's dramatism and the pentad.

Second, a fresh reading of Burke yields a surprisingly large collection of references to technology, far more (even about the technological drama alone) than can comfortably fit under a single theme or in a single essay. Burke at times was so preoccupied with the social implication of technology that, as Michael Hyde notes, he considered technology to be the "master psychosis" of the twentieth century (Hyde, 1995, pp. 47-48; and see Burke, 1984, pp. 44-47). Nonetheless, only a few scholars have examined Burke’s critique of technology; and most of their work is in the form of brief newsletter articles, book introductions, and sweeping overviews (see Cathcart’s list of essays, 1993, p. 287 and Keller, 1996). Burke and Ellul seem to take parallel paths in their discussion of technological worldviews, however Burke allows us to look more closely and systematically at the way human symbols concede autonomy to technological artifacts, allowing the created to overcome the creator. The next sections of this essay represents Ellul's critique of the technological society in the rhetorical language of Burke's pentad, bringing discursive symbols to the center of the technological worldview. This analysis will be informed by various comments scattered throughout the corpus of Burke's writing that deal with issues pertaining to technology.

Symbolizing in a Technological Society

Defining and making use of pentadic analysis requires an understanding of its place within the broader context of Burke’s theoretical perspective of Dramatism. Dramatism, as the term finds its way from Burke into standard English dictionaries, is "a technique for the analysis of language and of thought as basically modes of action rather than a means of conveying information" (Burke, 1985, p. 89). A Dramatistic perspective views language not as a conduit for transmitting experiential data, but as a creative force that enables socio-moral institutions, identity, worldviews and all that makes human beings "persons" and not "things."

Viewing social life as drama is for Burke an ontology that underscores the unique symbol-using character of the human (Burgess, Burke, Brock, & Simons, 1985, pp. 24-28; Burke, 1966, pp. 2-5, 16, 53-54). Burke distinguishes humans from animals and, notably for this project, from machines, because the latter fall under the category of sheer motion, not symbolic action (1966, pp. 53, 63-64). Through symbols, humans have the ability not only to experience the smell and taste of an orange (as most mammals can), but to refer to this experience even in the absence of the orange. An orange grove can be imagined before one is ever encountered and the changes needed for a more transportable orange can be discussed in the abstract, allowing farmers to cultivate a more profitable orange crop. The word "orange" may further impact human interaction as it later comes to symbolize juiciness, or safety, or great football. None of these meanings arise in the world of motion. Sensations give us experience of the physical world, but words about sensations make public a system of knowledge and grounding for interpretation (Burke, 1985, p. 92). Human language moves beyond a world of immediate perception to a world of possibilities, from what is to what is not or what ought to be (cf. Burke, 1966, pp. 9-12).

Central to the whole of Burke’s philosophy is this distinction between the world of action and the world of motion. Burke explains, "By 'symbolic action' in the Dramatistic sense is meant any use of symbol systems in general" (1966, p. 63). Motion entails the sheer movements of the physical realm such as the shifting ocean tides or the circulation of blood in an organism, while action encompasses interpretation, moral valuing, spiritual reflection and other forms of symbolizing. Human beings participate both in the world of motion and the world of action (Burke, 1966, pp. 6-7, 23, 62).11 As organisms, humans have real bodies that move in accordance with the laws of physics like any animal or, for that matter, like an unconscious machine. The human organism may sometimes appears to be little more than a thing in motion, such as in Burke's example of troops ordered to march systematically, wave by wave, over a mine field until each mine has been exploded, but as bodies that use language something more seems to motivate our behavior. We also perceive and infuse the physical world with significance and meaning beyond its biochemical existence (Burke, 1966, pp.53-54). Humans are not, or at least do not ordinarily perceive each other only as automata that respond to an environment by reflex or programming. Instead, through the symbolically valuing of motions humans also act with apparent motive and meaning.

Technological artifacts play an obvious role in the world of motion, for instance as a mesh of wires pulsing with electrons, glass fibers transmitting light waves or even gears and belts pushing along the automated assembly of consumer goods. These artifacts move, in Burke's view, not by motive but by unreflective necessity. What electrons may signify to computer programmers and, in turn, what computers signify culturally to lay citizens of a technological society is another matter. A string of one's and zero's rendered into alphanumeric characters by an email program may be an act of power when it takes the symbolic form of an employee review, or the sheer physical presence of a cell phone that is Internet enabled may act as a status symbol at a business conference. To get at the signification and motives in symbols, such as those pertaining to technological motion, Burke offers the pentadic method.

The pentad maps a kind of "grammar" that is implicit in the way humans act with symbols, and is analogous to the grammar that governs the way sentences are constructed. The five key terms of the pentad--agent, agency, act, scene and purpose--frame symbolic action as a narrative or a drama in which human motive and perspective can be determined. As Burke explains, "any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answers [sic] to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)" (1945/1969, p. xv).12 The answers to these pentadic questions do not merely follow along the lines of a journalistic article structured by the 5-Ws: who, when, where, what, and why. It is by discovering in a narrative, an emphasis on one particular term, the relationship between the terms, and the nuances of language used in developing a term, that the pentad reveals something about the worldview of the rhetor.

A root term is what a critic takes to be the dominant pentadic term operating in a drama, a term to which all of the others might be reduced. For example, agent is the root term in the great American success drama. The rugged, bootstrapped individual (agent) dominates the action of this drama by overcoming unfortunate circumstances (scene), exploiting limited resources (agencies) and finding her own purpose. Identifying the root term of a drama brings to the fore the perspective from which the drama is told. Burke explicitly links root terms to particular philosophical perspectives. The great American success drama falls within the philosophical school of idealism, characterized by agent-centered narratives. The philosophy of materialism has a different root term, the scene. In the materialistic drama, social conditions, the natural environment or some other scenic element tends to direct the action, condition the agent, and embody whatever purpose exists in the drama.

A root term is also normally linked to another subordinate pentadic term, forming what Burke calls a "pentadic ratio." Pentadic ratios describe the relationship between important terms within a given drama. The way an agent is described has implications for what the agent is said to do (act) and the details of a scene can contain an image of the agent, etc. For example, the aforementioned idealistic American agents pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, an agent-act ratio. Similarly, in a good suspense novel, a dark scene might lead to a diabolic act, a scene-act ratio. In a typical drama, two terms standout in this ratio fashion, defining the drama against the background of the other three.

As a final example of how root terms and ratios uncover motive and worldview, consider the e-commerce drama. It might be described as a scene of fast-paced change guided by young, non-traditional agents using the bleeding-edge agencies of Internet innovations attempting to act deftly for the purpose of gaining market share. The parts of the narrative emphasized in an account of dotcom failures reflect the narrator's perspective. If emphasis is placed on the naiveté of the young dotcom CEO's who made foolish business decisions, the root term for the drama is "agent," and an agent-act ratio is at work in the drama. The "foolish" action follows unsurprisingly from the description of the agent as naïve. This view indicts the agents of dotcom ventures. Alternatively, the stock market's unprecedented growth, and rapid technological changes may be at the core of how this dramatic failure unfolds. From this more deterministic vantage, a volatile scene gave way to the act of bankruptcy for many online businesses. How we go about stabilizing e-commerce investments and revenues depends on how we symbolize about these past failures and what terms are associated with the elements of a drama.

An analysis of root terms and ratios will help relate the characteristics of a technological society to the symbol systems and worldviews of that society. However, before moving forward with a pentadic formulation of the technological worldview, it is important to note the flexibility in both the scope of the pentadic terms and the scope of texts to which they can be applied. An agent may refer to an individual such as a politician (cf. Kelly, 1984) or an entire population such as the Soviet Union (cf. Peterson, 1986, Birdsell, 1987). Likewise a scene may be a particular episode, such as a newsworthy hunting accident (Tonn, 1993), a larger historical event, such as the Dust Bowl (Peterson, 1986), or an entire epoch of human history, such as the Cold War (Birdsell, 1987). Most of the technological drama described in this essay will follow Burke's own tendency to use a wide scope. For example, "technology," in a general sense, is considered an agency. Also, while many critics have applied the pentad to narrow symbolic acts (such as the Maine Hunting incident in Tonn, 1993) or even single texts (such as the critique of Reagan’s Chernobyl speech in Birdsell, 1987), Burke generally uses a pentadic terminology to characterize large bodies of texts or broad philosophical perspectives. Again, this essay follows Burke's example by describing a broad techno-cultural perspective rather than the drama of any individual text about technology. However, if the technological drama presented here has merit, it should have application to specific instances of technological rhetoric and to more specific technological agencies, much like the application of Burke’s pentad has been easily applied to the evaluation of single texts.

Agent-Agency in the Technological Drama

To extrapolate la technique onto a dramatistic grid I will first locate technology in the instrumental category of agency. While the excavation of various Burkean texts turns up evidence suggesting technology might be labeled by every one of the pentadic terms (and we will see some of these creative term shifts later), technology is most intuitively associated with agency. Burke makes this association when he states that "mechanical inventions may be classed . . . as instruments" (1950/1969, p. 288). We might confuse Burke’s statement here as nothing more than the observation that technological artifacts belong to the world of motion, that mechanical inventions are an instrumental part of that world. However, in a similar description, Burke explicitly ties his pentadic term "agency" to the notion of machines as instruments: "Machines are obviously instruments (that is, Agencies)" (his parentheses, 1945/1969, p. xx).13

Technology can be further situated as the "invented" agency of the creative human agent, making obvious the agent-agency ratio present in the way we ordinarily think about technologies (cf. Burke, 1950/1969, pp. 289-290). For instance, Thomas Edison represents an important agent in the drama of American history because of his many technological inventions, and in more everyday kinds of discourse, NASCAR drivers (agents) are symbolically linked with the automobiles(agencies) that they maintain. But technology as agency does not offer much rhetorical insight, per se, into Ellul's notion of technologies or techniques as "autonomous." If anything, it seems to contradict this position. Autonomy implies some kind of reversal in the intuitive relationship between agent and agency, a drama in which technologies appear to follow their own course as agents, using human beings as mere agencies. Shifts in the referents of pentadic terms reflect creative rhetorical interpretations, and are not uncommon in the tradition of Burkean criticism (see Blankenship, Fine, & Davis, 1983 for a description of Ronald Reagan's powerful shift from actor to scene in the drama of presidential debates). Thomas Frentz and Janice Hocker Rushing (1988) discover just such an inversion in the "Frankenstein myth" of dystopian technological discourse. They explore various ways in which human agents grow distant from their technical agencies in the drama of modern science fiction films. The Terminator and Blade Runner films illustrate for them how a machine can be symbolically portrayed, not as a tool, but as an "agency-turned-agent with a purpose of its own" (1989, p. 64). I would add that the film, The Matrix, is an even more dramatic inversion of agent-agency as the artificially intelligent (AI) machines in the movie find electrical power by using human beings as biological batteries.

Whether future AI research actually ever produces a "Frankenstein" or a sentient being of any kind is not the critical point. Burke himself believed, perhaps prematurely, that "No one expects our machines to go on inventing themselves after the human race is extinct" (1950/1969, p.289). Likewise, whether Ellul's notion of technological autonomy is literally meant to be an ontological claim makes little difference to this project. The dramatistic perspective we are developing here discovers in the present symbolic activities of human beings, a drama of autonomous technologies.

Even narratives about technical autonomy do not have to constitute technological agency as obviously and dramatically as a "Terminator" or 2001's "Hal." I suspect the most influential dramas operate more subtly, without personifying technology. It is easy to feel out-of-control within ordinary technological narratives that forecast more emphatically every day how rapidly and radically technologies will grow. As the nightly news reminds us that the computer we just purchased is a "dinosaur," that our prized CD collection must give way to a new music medium, that our home appliances will soon exchange information across the Internet, ad nauseam, we are more likely to perceive technical change as agent rather than agency. Even the inventors of new media affirm the agent-agency shift. Nicholas Negroponte, Director of MIT's Media Lab, remarks:

I think of myself as an extremist when it comes to predicting and initiating change. Nonetheless, when it comes to technological and regulatory changes, as well as new service, things are moving faster than even I can believe--there is obviously no speed limit on the electronic highway. It's like driving on the autobahn at 160 kph. Just as I realize the speed I'm going, zzzwoom, a Mercedes passes, then another, and another. Yikes, they must be driving at 120 mph. Such is life in the fast lane of the infobahn. (p. 75).

Buckling up for the ride seems to be the only reasonable act available to the human agent in Negroponte's narrative. In his view, "Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped" (p. 229). Whether or not the digital age brings digital consciousness to computers, the very process of technological change in this drama appears to be an agent of sorts, acting independent of human action.

The technological worldview implied in the inversion of agent-agency tends to characterize technique as out of human control. Ellul similarly proclaims, "let no one say that man is the agent of technical progress" (1955/1965, p. 80). As autonomy symbolically passes from agent to agency, the rise of the agency in the pentadic ratio leads to the lowering of agent. In other words, the agency-turned-agent that we have discussed so far also implies an agent-turned-agency, a narrative in which human beings view themselves as instruments of technology. Burke finds a similar pentadic shift in reductionist/mechanistic accounts of human beings when he observes that humans are commonly idealized "as a species of machine" as a consequence of the "great advances in automation and ‘sophisticated’ computers" (1966, p. 23, Comments). By their own symbolizing power, humans take on agency-like role of machines. Raymond Gozzi offers additional evidence of commonplace metaphors by which human beings are characterized as "machines" that can be "programmed" (1999, pp. 152-156).

The tension between agent and agency in the technological drama ultimately pushes agency (or the agency-idealized-as-agent) into the position of root term in such stories. Agency becomes the defining term of a technological drama and reduces all other terms to itself. Burke shares a similar view:

[M]odern science is par excellence an accumulation of new agencies (means, instruments, methods). And this locus of new power, in striking men’s fancy, has called forth "philosophies of science" that would raise agency to first place among our five terms (1945/1969, p. 275).

Burke's critique appears to be an insight into the philosophy of science, rather than technology, but he clearly associates the technological drama with the scientific. He compares science to the "accumulation of new agencies" and further subordinates science to technology when he claims that "In these utilitarian days, pure science must earn its way by serving applied science" (1941/1967, p. 65). In any case, I am suggesting that agency can also be viewed as the root term that dominates the worldview of the technological society.

The technological society exalts agency. It is therefore no surprise that Ellul identifies la technique as sacred in the technological society, because in dramatistic terms it embodies "perfect" agency and as the root term in a technological narrative it subjugates other symbols of agent, act, scene and purpose. Burke brings special attention to the subjugation of the pentadic term "purpose" in a technological society:

But though Rhetorical and Symbolic factors can surreptitiously reinforce the appeal of Agency, its prestige derives first from the Grammatical fact that it covers the area of applied science, the area of new power. . . .And since the requirements of such science favor the elimination of Purpose, or final cause, the means-ends relation provokes a shift to the term nearest of kin, which can supply the functions of purpose even when the term is formally omitted as a locus of motives (some emphasis added, 1945/1969, p. 286).

Applied science or technology is not only an agency-turned-agent it is a means turned into an end (a purposeless purpose). It is worth noting that Burke often associates the term purpose with mysticism or the supernatural (especially when it is the dominant term in a drama), giving us a vantage point from which to view the way technique debunks the sacred by eliminating purpose, and simultaneously becomes sacred, as agency turns into purpose.

The reduction of purpose to the root term of agency also tells us something about the worldview of a technological society. So much attention is focused on the development of means (techniques/technologies), that the end is truncated (human purpose for the technology). In the race to keep up with the fastest computer model and the latest release of the best word processor, so much attention is devoted to learning, debating, and bargain-shopping for these "means" that even professors forget to ask whether they have become better writers because of this updated agency. Likewise, legislators plan for the improvement of schools almost entirely in terms of technical goals such as acquiring educational software, multimedia stations and especially Internet connections without asking whether our children are becoming more intelligent or noble (cf. President Clinton's Education 2000 plan). Somehow the proximity of children to computers and digital information has been conflated with learning, a problem illustrated quite literally by at least one elementary school in Georgia whose closets had been filled with boxes of computers through a new lottery fund. The boxes could not be moved out of the closets and opened because the lottery money could not be spent on the human experts needed to install and maintain the computers, let alone on the human training teachers needed to best integrate networked computers into lesson plans and homework and the human training students needed to learn how to investigate research topics online (rather than find free music or pornography). The goal of educating children seems confused with that of educational technologies. In short, rather than being agencies by which humans achieve their purposes, technologies have become purpose.

Dramatism in the Technological Society

What has been carved out in this project is a route through which Ellul's insightful characterization of the technological society can enter the critical discussion of discourse in a rhetorical-technological context. His sociological philosophy of technology becomes a rhetorical philosophy of technology as ontological and epistemological claims are represented in the discourses about, constrained by and contained within technology. Using Kenneth Burke's dramatism we find in Ellul's assertions of technical autonomy, necessity and demystification, dimensions of a technological worldview perpetuated by the symbol-using/abusing power of human beings. This worldview is evident in a particular grammatical structure of symbols, a "drama" that features agency as its root term, and the inversion (or convergence) of the ratio agent-agency as its principle dynamic.

The characteristics of the technological drama outlined here act as a template for examining the kind of texts that commonly influence a technological society. Whether la technique is truly autonomous or not, the technological society adheres to a worldview that exalts the technical and creates a sense of autonomy through narratives that elevate the importance of means over the discussion of ends. The technological drama tends to treat human artifacts as if they were primary agents and human artisans as if they were passive agencies through which technologies acted. Examples of these narratives can easily be found in successful policy debates (Reagan's Star Wars proposal, Clinton's Education 2000 push for Internet connectivity, etc.), effective advertisements/sales (such as the emphasis on the technical specification of a stereo over the way it actually sounds to your human ear) and everyday conversations ("You can't stop progress").

Clearly there is much more to be said about a technological worldview. The partial account that I provide here is purposefully broad, so that it might be tailored to fit a variety of specific discourses. Among the significant particulars that might be added to the dramatistic model are Rushing and Frentz's description of the technological worldview as masculine, at least as it takes form in dystopian mythologies about technology (1989, p. 62). Recognizing a technological drama as masculine draws attention to the hyper-rationality of the ideal agent in a technological society (p. 72). Judy Wajcman has suggested further that this gendering exists in the "nature" of technological artifacts (2000). Along with the additional variables that might be added to a model of the technological worldview, the relationship among competing views of technology deserves consideration. A technological society typically comprises at least all of the following perspectives to which the technological drama may be adapted: the techno-enthusiast's faith in a technological utopia, the humanist's search for "appropriate technologies," the scientist's valuing of technological development through "risk-analysis," and the Luddites' rejection of technological artifacts.

The dramatistic model of technology outlined here has implications primarily for the rhetoric of technology as discourse. As the dramatistic view of technology develops, it should span the entire range of the rhetoric of technology. Robert Cathcart has already begun the development of a "philosophy of media form" (1993) as an extension of Burke's "philosophy of literary form." Cathcart's dramatistic account engages the technological mediation of symbols. Several other dramatistic approaches could be explored along the Ellulian lines I have already sketched. Burke's distinction between action and motion might be creatively used as an alternative rhetorical interpretation of the autonomy of technique. While Burke generally only classifies humans as species of action, and relegates technologies to the realm of sheer motion, at different places he also suggests that the relationship might be turned on its head in the same way that agent-agency is inverted.

In other words it is possible to conceive of "technology itself is an embodiment of essentially human motives" (1945/1969, p. 251) because it is a peculiar sort of motion only made possible by the creative human action of technical invention. Things bear a resemblance to their creators. On the other hand, technical praxis tends to reduce human action into sheer motion, especially in occupational roles that require extensive paper filing and data entry (cf. Burke, 1945/1969, p. 15). Humans find themselves reshaping their "psychological patterns in obedience to the patterns of [their] machines" (1984, p. 63). Human action transforms into mindless technical motion, and technical motion appears autonomous as action that reflect the creativity of technical invention. Such a theory of action-motion would also help expand the understanding of the rhetoric of technological artifacts themselves.

Another possible dramatistic approach to technology is through the notion of entelechy. Burke's entelechy, the human compulsion to track down all the symbolic possibilities implied by any given terminology (Burke, 1966, p. 72), might be used to explicate the phenomenon of "technical necessity," the belief that whatever is technically possible must be technically explored. A new technical terminology implies new possibilities for human action that, as beings "rotten with perfection" are difficult to ignore. As applied to Ellul, entelechy suggests that a range of terminologies centering around "efficiency" is being applied to all areas of human activity, from the political to the personal. The compulsion to apply the vocabulary of efficiency might be the dramatistic equivalent of being driven by technical necessity to invent every method and machine that is possible. Rushing and Frentz suggest, at least, that pure agency/efficiency is the perfect end (entelechy) towards which dystopian narrative of technology direct the agents of their drama (1989, pp. 64, 72).

In the end the project here is not just to illuminate the rhetoric of technology by sketching a dramatistic model of the technological worldview. It is to join Burke, Ellul and other critics of technology in the project of shaping culture so that it subordinates technologies to the creative improvement of the human condition and more clearly reflects upon their socio-moral effects.



Mike Hübler is a Lecturer in Communication Arts at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

1 No doubt there is an interplay among these variables. New texts may change a culture as much as the culture produces a new text, producing an ongoing cycle of social change. As well, we might argue that in some ways the "thinking and writing" of a society is their worldview. For these purposes I only the make the point that we can also take culture to be a collective set of values and norms that tend to socialize individuals into particular ways of thinking and writing.

2 Frederick Ferré, long-time editor of Research on Philosophy and Technology, fruitfully defines technology in this way, as any "practical implementation of intelligence" (1995, p. 26)

3 Martin Heidegger makes the distinction between more advanced and primitive technologies by claiming the latter tends to treat nature as a "standing reserve of energy." A windmill represents a more primitive technology that co-exits with the environment by producing energy only when nature itself does. Modern technologies look at the earth as a storehouse of electricity for its work, e.g. oil fields, coal mines, uranium, etc. Carolyn Miller (1977) makes use of Edward Hall’s nomenclature, high and low context technologies. Low context technologies are simple extensions of the human body, like a shovel that amplifies the reach and digging potential of the hand. More sophisticated artifacts tend to be high-context because they constitute a complex system of skilled workers and equipment in dynamic interdependence. As a media expert, Nicholas Negroponte makes the distinction between the old and new by the labels, atoms and bits. Old technologies are analog. They pertain to the physical world of friction, air pressure, light and sound waves, etc. New technologies are digital. They create, manipulate, and delete nothing more than symbolic one’s and zero’s.

4 The author wishes to thank one of the blind reviewers for helping to more clearly articulate the basic premise of the paper with Burkean concepts such as "perspective by incongruity," and the basic purpose of the paper, to critically and symbolically inspect the ways in which technology seems to usurp the power of its creators.

5 In 1950, Ellul finished his work, which he had titled The Technical Society. It took him five years to find a publisher willing to gamble on such an unusual subject. The editor insisted the title be changed to The Technological Society because he himself was planning to publish a book by Ellul’s original title. (Unfortunately, the editor’s alleged book never materialized.) It took ten years before an English translation was published, but the book has now been widely circulated in paperback as a classic treatise of the topic.

6 In his last treatise on the subject of la technique, Ellul reveals that his original intent for calling attention to the problems of the technological society was to prevent his native Europe from following the same path to which America seemed irreversibly committed. So in a sense, he was describing only modern American society as a technological society and forecasting the status of other incipient technological societies. He complains that instead of heeding his warning, critics dismissed his early work as deterministic and pessimistic. Thirty-five years later in his Technological Bluff, Ellul finds that his discussion of la technique has become nearly mainstream, but unfortunately he also believes most of the Western world has waited too long to undo its corrosive effects. A more contemporary critic, Neil Postman, brought new attention to la technique with his own work on "technopoly." Like Ellul did years ago, Postman only places America in the category of a technopoly.

7 Ellul's last published work, the Technological Bluff, comes the closest to exploring the arguments and assumptions which allow la technique to flourish. Discourse about the needs and benefits of la technique tends to be, according to Ellul, a "bluff." Ellul does not, as a philosopher, invoke rhetorical theory as a touchstone in examining the "bluff."

8 In this analysis, I will use the term technology to refer largely to the conglomeration of products and methodologies, from industrial machines and automobiles to DVD players and computer circuitry, that modern scientific and engineering research has helped bring into existence. By technological society, I mean to depict both the pervasiveness of technological devices in society and our utter dependence on (if not reverence for) these devices in daily activities. Most importantly, it is, I believe, nearly impossible to be a member of a technological society and refuse to make use of its technologies. (I cannot imagine how a graduate student could reach the goal of becoming a full professor without utilizing, to some degree, word processors, photocopiers, electronic library indices, e-mail, cars, and the like.)

9 "Cybernetics" is a term that dates back at least to Norbert Wiener's treatise on the Human Use of Human Beings (1965), and has been used to label internal biological communication, machine-to-machine communication and advances in robotics. I will use the term only to refer to communicative interactions between humans and machines.

10 Other more radical notions of cybernetics include "software agents," a kind of digital communication in which technological artifacts become both speaker and audience, and "cyborgs," a somewhat fanciful notion of human-machine hybrids discussed more in other fields of inquiry.

11 It is important for Burke in understanding the motion-action distinction that motion is a world which both constrains humanity and exists whether or not human beings do (cf. Burgess et al., 1985, p 28; Burke, 1985, p. 90; Burke, LASA). Metaphysicians may take exception to the motion/action distinction, claiming either that the only world that "exists" is that which a human creates or alternatively, reducing humans to chemicals or automata. Burke chooses to avoid this difficult metaphysical debate by granting that any number of reductive philosophies may be true. However, he claims that even if humans are nothing more than chemicals, they do not perceive themselves or each other as such. It is only this perception which he wishes to explore.

12 Much later, Burke suggests Attitude may be an appropriate sixth term for motive, creating a hexad. Not much is said about Attitude in the technological drama, although he does refer once to the "pro-technological attitude" as we described in the earlier section on Burke and Luddites.

13 Note that I take Burke’s references to "machines," as well as "mechanical inventions," "(new) weapons," "applied science," "technology," "(Big) Technology," and many instances of "tools," "instruments," and even "science" to all generally refer to some part of what I have defined as technology. In most case (I hope the ones that have chosen here), what Burke observes about the symbolicity of these various technologies, applies to the technological worldview in general.


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A Rhetorical Journey into Darkness: Crime-Scene Profiling as Burkean Analysis

Jennifer MacLennan, University of Saskatchewan

Abstract: This essay focuses upon dramatistic nature of crime scene profiling, the technique used to infer the motivations that underlie a baffling but increasingly familiar human act: the “stranger killing.” It argues that this technique of interpreting the symbolic “text” of the crime scene is essentially a rhetorical method that employs—with different names—the elements and ratios of Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic pentad. My study, like other broad applications of Burkean principles, both validates Burke’s observation of the ubiquity of the two principal dramatistic ratios (act-scene and scene-agent) and affirms the symbolic infusion of all human action, including acts of identification through extreme mortification.


THE MAJOR FEATURE OF ANY STORY of unprovoked violent crime is the baffling question of why such acts occur. Because they are typically random, and because they appear to be without motive as it is commonly understood, these crimes compel our attention even as they terrify and confound us. “Who done it? and Why? That’s what we all want to know.”1

Serial crimes and explosions of mass violence, though different in many ways, alike suggest a level of anger and socially-motivated vengeance that is particularly difficult to understand. However, the work of scholars such as rhetorical critic Jeanne Fisher and Canadian anthropologist Elliott Leyton,2 as well as that of numerous criminologists, journalists, and other violent crime specialists,3 suggests that such acts can be interpreted—once we understand how to “read” their meaning. Learning how to do so is from a practical perspective a matter of some urgency, since numbers of multiple and serial murderers are rising. As Elliott Leyton explains, “until the 1960s, they were anomalies who appeared perhaps once a decade; but by the 1980s, one was spawned virtually each month. . . . According to unofficial US Justice Department estimates, there may be as many as one hundred multiple murderers killing in America.”4

No one knows with certainty what produces a mass murderer or serial killer,5 although the theories are numerous. Some experts emphasize nature over nurture as the root of such psychopathic behavior;6 others point to a difficult childhood in which a violent or murderous attitude may have been “formed and damaged early;”7 still others reach for a social explanation.8 Whatever the full explanation, however, the motive for such violent acts seems to be part of a larger pattern of social estrangement, profound psychological division, and the desire for symbolic transcendence. The messages such criminals leave behind in the remnants of their acts can help us to put an end to such rampages, “if only we could figure out how to interpret their words and actions” (AM 22).

Finding answers to questions of meaning and motive behind random violence is the purpose of criminal profiling, a method of analysis established in the early 1980s by the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit. Profiling is founded on extensive and systematic study of the offenders and the acts they commit; as a method of analysis, it works on “the principle that behavior reflects personality,”9 and treats the violent act as a kind of drama of revenge and transformation. Profiling assumes that the crime scene contains patterns that give clues to the violent or serial offender’s background, behavioral quirks, even physical characteristics. These patterns can be unearthed through a systematic investigation of key elements of what, where, when, and how, which in turn lead to answers to the questions that most elude us: Why? and ultimately Who?

As prominent FBI profiler John Douglas explains, “everything we see at a crime scene tells us something about the unknown subject . . . who committed the crime.”10 These clues, when carefully analyzed by an experienced profiler, can therefore be “used to draw a . . . portrait of the likely suspect.”11 Douglas describes profiling as a form of applied psychology, and likens it to medical diagnosis (AM 18). However, the subtle process of “reading” the crime scene is actually more akin to rhetorical criticism, in that both are concerned with studying and interpreting the symbolic products of human action. People rely on symbolic means to make both “their grandest and [their] most heinous statements,”2 and their acts constitute expressions of their psychological and social meaning. As Leyton argues, unprovoked violent crimes can best be understood as messages of retaliation against the social order “in which the killer states clearly what social category has excluded him.”13 The profiler “reads” the crime scene in exactly the way a critic studies any other text, revealing its symbolic structures and deciphering its message in order to understand, as Kenneth Burke would have it, “what people are saying—or trying to say.”14 The challenge for the profiler-critic is to discern the patterns in the offender’s drama, in order to “figure out what’s going on and, more important, answer the question Why? . . . What makes people commit the crimes they commit in the way they commit them?” (AM 10).

The reading of symbolic human acts to uncover the motives encoded in them is a fundamentally rhetorical activity, and the more opaque the motivation for the act, the more it cries out for rhetorical analysis. This is certainly true of violent crime; as Douglas observes, “in the case of every horrible crime since the beginning of civilization, there is always that searing, fundamental question: what kind of person could have done such a thing?” (MH 13). In an attempt to find a way of answering these questions, John Douglas and his partner Robert Ressler undertook a comprehensive study of incarcerated felons, gathering valuable information into a systematized and usable data bank (MH 118–20). What they assembled was, in essence, a “grammar” of the symbolic elements of violent crime, and they discovered that the language of a crime scene, like any other system of symbolic representations, has conventional elements and structures that the profiler can learn to interpret. In fact, says Douglas, for an experienced profiler, “the crime itself begins to talk to you” (JD 19).

In this paper, I propose to demonstrate that the technique of criminal profiling, as a system of interpreting the symbolic “text” of the crime scene for evidence of the criminal’s personality, is essentially a rhetorical method that employs—albeit with slightly different names—the elements and ratios of Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic pentad. As Burke explains, “any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answer to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose).”15 Burke believed that, since all human action is infused with symbolicity, “a rhetorical motive is often present where it is not usually recognized, or thought to belong,” and he sought to expand the scope of rhetorical analysis not only to cover instances of overt discursive persuasion, but to illuminate “human relationships generally.”16 He proposed dramatism, with its five key terms and its emphasis on the relationships between scene-act and scene-agent, as the primary method. Burke’s approach treats dramatistic analysis not as a metaphorical or analogical system of enquiry; instead, it is a practical method that can be applied directly to human behavior, because “people do literally ‘act.’“17

Burke places the key ratios of scene-act and scene-agent “at the very center of motivational assumptions,”18 thus emphasizing the shaping power of scene in all rhetorical interactions. Scene is certainly the generative term in profiling, an inevitable focus since the profiler’s analysis has to begin with the crime scene. By studying the relationship between this scene and the violent act, an experienced profiler can make inferences about the offender’s attitude and motivation, two important features in eventually discovering his identity.19

Though it is unlikely that Douglas’ system of profiling is explicitly derived from Burke’s dramatism, its essentially dramatistic form is, according to Burke, inevitable, since “any study of human relations in terms of ‘action’ could . . . be called dramatistic.”20 Profiling clearly studies human relations in terms of action, albeit of a particular kind, and it treats this action as a form of communication, in which an offender makes “the statement about himself and the people around him that he’s been trying to make unsuccessfully for many years” (AM 282). Burke and Douglas alike treat symbolic acts, however inscribed, as rhetorical texts that can be read and interpreted using dramatistic methods; as Burke notes, while most of us communicate our messages through our verbal expressions, “others carve theirs out of jugular veins,”21 an observation that opened the possibility of profiling long before Douglas and Ressler began their investigative project in 1978. My study, like other broad applications of Burkean principles,22 at once affirms the “textual” nature and symbolic infusion of all human action, and validates Burke’s observation of the ubiquity of the two principal dramatistic ratios (scene-act and scene-agent) as a means of “getting at” questions of motive. These two ratios necessarily figure prominently in profiling, since the investigator has no choice but to begin with the crime scene as he attempts to decipher the meaning and motive of the act. From these, the profiler is able to infer information about the offender’s attitude, another key element in eventually identifiying the perpetrator of a violent crime. Although I will draw from numerous sources for this analysis,23 I will focus primarily on the presentation of profiling by John Douglas in such works as An Anatomy of Motive, Obsession, Mindhunter, and Journey into Darkness.24

Kenneth Burke proposed dramatism as a means for “pondering matters of human motivation.”25 In a parallel fashion, John Douglas and his colleagues at the FBI introduced the system of criminal profiling as a means of understanding “where the motive comes from” in the case of otherwise baffling violent crime (AM 17). Both profiling and dramatistic analysis confront that most perplexing of all human issues, “what people are doing and why they are doing it.”26 Douglas, like Burke, links his project to the “central issue of what we call, for want of a better phrase, the human condition” through its focus on the questions “How? Why? Where? Who?” He likens the profiler’s concern with motive to that of “novelists and psychologists, . . . philosophers and theologians, social workers evaluating cases, [and] judges at sentencing hearings” (AM 17). Burke similarly observes the preoccupation with motives found in nearly all human endeavor, including “systematically elaborated metaphysical structures, in legal judgements, in poetry and fiction, in political and scientific works, in news, and in bits of gossip offered at random.”27 Inevitably, the form of queries into motive in all these fields will manifest the key terms of dramatism, since, as Burke notes, “all statements that assign motives can be shown to arise out of [the terms of the pentad] and to terminate in them.”28 Thus, Douglas and Ressler could not have avoided a dramatistic approach in their development and refinement of crime-scene profiling.

Just as the rhetorical critic recognizes that discourses are “the external signs of internal states, [that] certain features of a linguistic act entail certain characteristics of the language user,”29 so the profiler relies on the fact that “every crime scene contains a profile of the perpetrator.”30 Like rhetorical analysis, criminal profiling “suggests that there are strong and multifarious links between a style and an outlook, and that the critic may, with legitimate confidence, move from the manifest evidence of style to the human personality that this evidence projects.”31 In both cases, the critic assumes that symbolic acts, as well as being “motivated by the situation in which they take place,”32 are also consistent with the attitudes and character of the agent. “If you want to understand Picasso, you have to study his art,” Douglas explains. “If you want to understand the criminal personality, you have to study his crime” (MH 344). With this and similar statements, Douglas links act and agent by a process of inference from the dominant ratios of scene-act and scene-agent. This link, Burke’s agent-act ratio, is what enables the investigator to move from the features of scene to a profile of the offender. This emphasis on the ratios of scene-act and scene-agent, and by inference, of act-agent, is what marks profiling as a dramatistic method; the profiler studies the dynamic relationships among act, scene, and agent in order to interpret the symbolic strategies embedded in the artifact. This process narrows the field of suspects so that the offender may be identified and apprehended.

While the correspondences between Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic theories and the method and theory of profiling as described by John Douglas are immediately apparent in their parallel analytical patterns of agent-act-scene-agency-purpose and who-what-where-when-how-why,33 a careful comparison reveals deeper philosophical and theoretical connections that go well beyond mere method. It is these deeper connections that this paper will explore in depth. The most striking of these is the way that both dramatism and profiling treat human action as symbolically infused. As I will show, both systems also emphasize the situated nature of symbolic acts, and stress the motivational force of the scene-act ratio. Both insist on the profound and predictive relationship between the agent and his acts; both also recognize the role of attitude in an individual’s choice of symbolic expressions, while at the same time maintaining a distinction between attitude and agency. Interestingly, both systems of analysis can trace their roots to literary forms,34 and not coincidentally, both Douglas and Burke turn to drama for an analytical framework.

More subtle still, as I will show, is the manner in which the two systems treat form. As I will also demonstrate in the body of this discussion, for both Douglas and Burke, form is a manifestation of human desire arising out of the hierarchic motive. As such, it is an expression of attitude, and bears the marks of the agent’s state of mind and desire. In both systems, estrangement is the origin of the universal drive to transcendence, culminating at its most desperate in an act of redemption and reidentification achieved through victimage—itself “a highly Dramatistic concept,”35 according to Burke. As I will demonstrate, both systems see the symbolic act as fundamentally rhetorical, as a kind of message of transformation and consubstantiation. And just as Burke applies his system of textual analysis to the motivational profiling of one of the twentieth century’s most infamous criminals, Adolph Hitler,36 so Douglas demonstrates the usefulness of his profiling method to understanding the subtext of such literary works as Othello” (AM 371–74).

The applicability of Burke’s dramatistic method to an analysis of motive in violent crime has already been demonstrated.37 What I hope to do here is to trace these deeper parallels, to go beyond pointing out that Burke’s five key terms are duplicated in Douglas’s analytical framework of who, what, where, how, and why (AM 4; 10; 11; 17; JD 340–41; MH 13; 24; 68). I hope to reveal that the two systems are in fact independently-arrived-at configurations of a single philosophical phenomenon: a conviction about the profound and inescapable relationship between scene, act, and agent, and a like belief in the central importance of intention and attitude in the symbolic choices of an agent.

I. The Symbol-Using Animal

The most fundamental correspondence between the two systems of motivational analysis depends on their shared assumption that human action is symbolically infused. The first clause of Burke’s famed “definition of man” establishes the foundation for all that follows in both systems.38 Burke’s is a dramatistic definition, focused on the nature of and reasons for human action. The symbol-using animal, “in keeping with his nature as an agent,”39 depends on symbolically infused action to create a sense of identification and social belonging, but as a result of that same symbolic nature, experiences just as profound a sense of division. The creation of identity, as Burke reminds us, depends not only on the stressing of commonalities, but also on something he calls “congregation by segregation,” identification by the stressing of some difference shared in common.40 Thus victimage is, for Burke, “the major temptation in the . . . systems by which men build up their ideas, concepts, and images of identity and community.”41 The more tenuous a person’s hold on his identity, the more likely he is to depend on victimage as a source of social identification.

Profiling, with its necessary focus on victimage as the outcome of failed social identifications, is dramatistic in exactly the sense Burke describes, in that it insists on human intention and choice as the source of symbolic representations, rather than seeing violence as simply the result of illness or compulsion (AM 30; JD 128; MH 174)—in Burke’s terms, it insists on viewing the crime as the product of action rather than motion.42 Says Burke, “Action involves character, which involves choice. . . . Though the concept of sheer motion is non-ethical, action implies the ethical, the human personality.”43 Like Burke, Douglas insists that, in analyzing the motives for violent behavior,

the crucial word is “choice.” With the exception of a very few truly insane (and generally delusional) individuals, these men choose to do what they do. They may obsess about hurting women. They may be motivated to act out their obsessions. But in fact, they don’t have to behave in this manner. They are not compelled. They choose to do it because it makes them feel good (AM 30).

It is this relationship between action and character that makes profiling possible at all; in turn, its effectiveness validates the dramatistic principles that link act to agent and scene.

Another important feature shared by the two systems is the distinction between practical and symbolic acts. For Douglas, as for Burke, the former are a means to a pragmatic end—for example, an armed robber kills a witness who might be able to identify him. While we do not need dramatistic methods to understand the reasons for practical acts, symbolic acts, by contrast, invite and sustain more thorough rhetorical inquiry, since their motives are not so immediately discernible. Burke explains the difference between a symbolic act and a practical act in a fashion similar to Douglas’s characterization:

If a man climbs a mountain, not through any interest in mountain climbing, but purely because he wants to get somewhere, and the easiest way to get there is by crossing the mountain, we need not look for symbolism. But if we begin to discuss why he wanted to get there, we do get into matters of symbolism. For his conception of purpose involves a texture of human relationships; his purposes are “social”; as such, they are not something-in-and-by-itself, but a function of many relationships; which is to say that they are symbolical. 44

Unprovoked violence of the type and scale studied by profilers is clearly not pragmatic, since the victims are typically strangers whose deaths are of little practical consequence to the offender; instead, such killing is purely symbolic, having both compensatory and transformative effects. As Douglas explains, “the kind of criminals we deal with don’t kill as a means to an end, such as an armed robber would; they kill or rape or torture because they enjoy it, because it gives them satisfaction and a feeling of domination and control so lacking from every other aspect of their shabby, inadequate and cowardly lives” (JD 29).

Burke reminds us that rhetoric “involves the use of symbolic action to produce effects ‘beyond’ the act.”45 The violent acts of serial killers and those of mass murderers function in exactly this way; the meaning of each act transcends the act itself, and operates on both individual and social levels. On the individual level, such acts are performed for the psychological satisfaction of the offender, providing the personal power he craves. As Douglas notes, random violence, particularly the deaths of innocents, provides “a means of empowering this inadequate personality” (AM 276). He explains how this empowerment is achieved:

Being able to manipulate, dominate, and control a victim, to decide whether that victim lives or dies, or how that victim dies, temporarily counteracts, for some, their feelings of inadequacy. . . . It makes them feel grandiose and superior, as they believe they are entitled to feel. In other words, raping and murdering sets the world right with them. (AM 28–29)

At the same time that they symbolically affirm the offender’s personal power over a helpless victim, these violent acts also have a public function: they are intended as a kind of “statement” about the offender and his relationship to the social order. Unable to achieve a position of status by any other means, the killer achieves it by violence, a way that is doubly rewarding in that it also punishes society for rejecting him. As Leyton explains, “as a result of his perceived exclusion from the social order to which he wishes to belong, the perpetrator attempts to remedy this ‘injustice’ by seeking revenge through symbolic scapegoats—his victims.”46 In reflecting on his acts of violence, one perpetrator reported that

it wasn’t just deaths I wanted. It was, like I said, somewhat of a social statement in there too. . . . My little social statement was, I was trying to hurt society where it hurt the worst, and that was by taking its valuable . . . future member of the working society; that was the upper class or the upper middle class, what I considered to be snobby or snotty brats.47

Killing innocent victims allows the offender to lay symbolic claim to their lives and social representation, to define what they are, and in the process to redefine himself, transforming himself from a “deeply inadequate nobody who wants to be a somebody” (MH 338) into a powerful figure of fear and awe. Through the ritualized sacrifice of a victim-scapegoat, the killer hopes to subsume what the victim stands for, and in so doing compensate for his inability to achieve such distinction himself. The impulse to slaughter as a transformative motive is predicted by Burke in his discussions of the universal drive toward identification:

An imagery of slaying (slaying of either the self or another) is to be considered merely as a special case of identification in general. Or otherwise put: the imagery of slaying is a special case of transformation, and transformation involves the imagery of identification. That is: the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it.48

Even the offenders themselves on occasion recognize the symbolic import of their actions. The murderer of a young teenager describes how her death functioned as a ritual act of consubstantiation: “Shari is now a part of me. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Our souls are now one. . . . Four fifty-eight, Saturday, the first of June, we became one soul” (MH 302). Similarly, California’s “Coed Killer,” Ed Kemper, explains of his victims that “alive, they were distant, not sharing with me. . . . When they were being killed, there wasn’t anything going on in my mind except that they were going to be mine” (MH 108).

In addition to providing compensatory relief, the act also offers the possibility of transcendence—that is, a fulfillment of the offender’s desire for importance and social value. After all, as Burke points out, acts have the power to “make or remake [the individual] in accordance with their nature. They would be his product and/or he would be theirs.”49 The killer thus remakes himself in the image of the act he performs—a daring act of power and possession that exalts him as it depersonalizes the victim and punishes the social hierarchy. Douglas observes this motive in Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon: “once he had squeezed the trigger and Lennon had fallen, Chapman was no longer a nobody. His name would be forever linked with his hero’s” (AM 303). Media attention to his crime completes the transformation, according him celebrity status and public awe. For instance, the young gunman who murdered eighteen people in a German high school in April 2002 told friends before the attack, “One day I want everyone to know my name; I want to be famous.”50

For Douglas, as for Burke, such unprovoked violence originates in the interaction between the symbolic scene and the attitude of the agent, which in the case of the typical violent predator, is marked by a deep sense of inadequacy coupled with an equally pervasive sense of significance. As Douglas explains:

Most violent offenders, we found after some study, had two factors warring within them. One was a feeling of superiority, grandiosity: societal mores were not meant for them; they were too smart or too clever to have to start at the bottom and work their way up, or to live by the normal rules that govern a relationship. The other, equally strong feeling was of inadequacy, of not being able to measure up, of knowing they were losers no matter what they did. And since the first feeling generally made them unwilling to study, work, pay their dues, whatever you want to call it, they often were, in fact, inadequately prepared for a job or a relationship that would give a normal person genuine satisfaction. This just reinforced their outsider status. (AM 28)

When the two features of attitude cannot be resolved, the offender resorts to his transformative act of victimage as a means of repudiating his sense of powerlessness and lack of control over his life. But symbolic acts, whatever their ritual significance to the offender, have practical consequences, and “what is defined in terms of sacrifice by one is thought about in terms of senseless killing by another.”51 For the sake of the human beings who are brutalized and killed, such acts must be prevented. In order to do so, we first need to understand what drives them.

II. The Scene Contains the Act

Part of the answer to this question can be found in the second major parallel between the two systems of analysis: their emphasis on the “situatedness” of symbolic acts, or what Burke terms the scene-act ratio. Central to Burke’s conception of human relations as a drama is the “principle . . . that the nature of acts and agents [will] be consistent with the scene.”52 As he explains in A Rhetoric of Motives, “an act of persuasion is affected by the character of the scene in which it takes place and of the audience to whom it is addressed.”53 According to Burke, an understanding of scene is essential to an understanding of motive; indeed, “motives are shorthand terms for situations.”54 As a result, symbolic acts can best be understood as primarily “strategies for meeting and overcoming a situation, or possibly learning to bear it if it cannot be overcome.”55

Burke elaborates on the interdependence between scene and act, and its contribution to motive, arguing that “there is implicit in the quality of a scene the quality of the action that is to take place within it. This would be another way of saying that the act will be consistent with the scene.”56 Both literally and figuratively, it is scene that unites agent and act, serving as a “fit container” for both.57 Like Burke, Douglas turns to a dramatistic model as “the only way to figure out what had happened at a crime scene,” since it allows the investigator to “understand what had gone inside the head of the principal actor in that drama: the offender” (AM 16). With its focus on motivation and action, drama not only provides an effective analytical structure for understanding human action, but points to the essential role of conflict in human relations. As Burke summarizes, “if action, then drama; if drama, then conflict; if conflict, then victimage.”58

The crime scene not only serves as a key feature of the “text” of a criminal act, but, more important, it actually contributes to the performance of the act. Douglas, like Burke, rejects a purely psychological explanation of human behavior, and instead finds the key to motive in the interaction between the scene and the agent. “What a lot of people in the psychiatric and judicial communities don’t seem to grasp,” says Douglas, “is that violence is situational. It has to do with the environment and the opportunity” (JD 177). Accordingly, what Burke calls “the motivational force of the scene”59 is so important to profiling that it has become, for Douglas, “one of the points I make over and over again” (AM 236).

Understanding the contribution of scene to motive also requires understanding its relationship to the attitude of the agent, who is, like the act, “contained” or shaped by the context. As Burke explains, “one set of scenic conditions will ‘implement’ and ‘amplify’ given ways and temperaments which in other situations would remain mere potentialities.”60 Douglas concurs:

What my colleagues and I have found and have tried desperately to get across is that dangerousness is situational. If you can keep someone in a well-ordered environment where he doesn’t have choices to make, he may be fine. But put him back in the environment in which he did badly before, his behavior can quickly change. (MH 350)

Thus, many violent criminals are “model prisoners” when incarcerated, since their environment exerts a high level of control over their behavior. In a literal sense, then, this highly structured scene “contains” the agent.

As both Douglas and Burke make clear, the scene contributes more to the commission of the act than physical constraints and structure; it is an emotionally powerful component of its meaning. As Burke explains, the “scene both realistically reflects the course of the action and symbolizes it.”61 In other words, the scene not only records the event, but itself inscribes the meaning of that event. Douglas thus observes that “the crime scene becomes psychologically part of the killing” (MH 304) and what can be reconstructed from the scene is not merely the sequence of events that took place, but also the relationships encoded in the ratios of scene-act and scene-agent. Douglas recounts that the big breakthrough in profiling came with the realization of “how much you could learn about criminal behavior and motives by focusing on the evidence of the crime scene” (MH 81). Thus it is that, for Douglas as for Burke, motives “cannot be separated from the situation to which they are responses. They are the terms that make action understandable.”62

IV. The Dancing of an Attitude

In addition to their foundational concern with the relationships between scene-act and scene-agent, a critical component in both systems is the fusion of agent and act known as attitude. “The attitude,” Burke tells us, “is the mental component of the actor,”63 an element important enough to an understanding of motive that Burke expressed regret at having left it out of his original formulation.64 Attitude may be understood as the expression of the agent-act ratio, the relationship between a person’s acts and his character. Thus, according to William Rueckert, the foremost interpreter of Burkean theory, “representative symbolic acts are images of the self which performs them, and analysis of such symbolic acts will reveal ‘some underlying principle of the agent’s character, some fixed trait of his personality.’“65 Profiling relies on such a relationship between the agent’s attitude and his representative acts, as Douglas emphasizes in his observation that “all this comes down to one thing: behavior is consistent. Even in its inconsistencies, it’s consistent” (JD 359).

If an agent’s character is reflected in his attitude, the drama played out in each significant scene is one of building and maintaining identity. Thus, a series of symbolic acts may be characterized as “a restatement of the same thing in different ways . . . a character repeating his identity; . . . the sustaining of an attitude.”6 These efforts at “sustaining an attitude” are decipherable by those who have learned to read the language of symbolic victimage, which like any language has its conventional elements.

Attitude can thus be considered as the point at which act and agent coalesce, a predisposition or tendency in the agent toward a given pattern of acts. It is, says, Burke, “the preparation for an act, which would make it a kind of symbolic act, or incipient act.67 In other words, the agent’s representative symbolic acts exist virtually within him, in the form of attitude, prior to the actual commission of the deed. Thus, the violent criminal’s “will toward manipulation, domination, and control, if allowed free rein, could easily result in murder” (AM 42). None of this is to discount the contributions or importance of scene in the making of an act, however. Douglas points repeatedly to what he calls “precipitating stressors” arising out of the scene (AM 192; JD 104, 249), the most common of which “have to do with jobs and relationships—losing one or the other—but any type of hardship, particularly an economic one, can trigger the violent outburst” in an offender whose attitude predisposes him toward such acts (JD 104). For Douglas, as for Burke, attitude inclines the agent toward certain patterns of acts, but it is the interaction between agent and scene that precipitates the acts themselves. This is true even for violent offenders, as can be seen by the fact that “many men who are violent and very dangerous in the outside world do okay in prison where life is highly structured and they don’t have the opportunity to be harmful to innocent people” (JD 364).

In his discussions of attitude, Douglas makes two sets of distinctions that strike me as very Burkean. The first is that between signature, which could be understood as the encoding of attitude in the arrangement of the scene, and modus operandi (MO), the encoding of agency. Signature is the word Douglas uses to describe the “unique element and personal compulsion” that is evidenced in the arrangement of the crime scene (MH 59). The term refers to the “element or set of elements that make the crime and the criminal stand out, that represent what he [is]” (MH 59). MO, by contrast, emphasizes the means or agency of the crime, and serves a merely pragmatic purpose. “It’s what the perpetrator does to commit the crime” (MH 252), “the means by which the crime is carried out” (AM 58).

Because MO is part of the agency by which the crime is committed rather than part of the psychological or attitudinal component of the act, it “changes as the offender becomes more experienced and proficient” (AM 72). Signature, by contrast, has no such pragmatic function; instead, it is pure symbolism—“the aspect of the crime that emotionally fulfills the offender” (AM 58). Signature is central to the symbolic “message” an offender hopes to encode, and thus is part of what Rueckert calls his “unified attitude.” Unlike MO, signature therefore is related to the ritualistic, transformative elements of the act, and is thus “a critical clue in coming up with the [unidentified subject’s] personality and motive” (AM 58). Signature represents the offender’s “personality [as] reflected in the particulars of the specific crime he chooses” (AM 72); since signature is part of the motive for the crime, it tends to “remain relatively the same” across crime scenes left by the same offender (AM 58).

Douglas also distinguishes between motive—which means, as it does for Burke, the underlying reasons for the commission of the act, which are embedded in its symbolic meaning for the agent—and intent, which “refers simply to the deliberateness of the act—consciously choosing to commit the crime” (AM 73). While a recognition of intent keeps the act in the realm of choice and therefore of action, and places responsibility for the act squarely on the agent, it does not explain the agent’s reasons for committing the act, which are “deeper and scarier” than the pragmatic purposes that underlie ordinary crimes (AM 101). This is the province of motive, which is thus linked both to signature and to attitude.

Attitude, as we have already seen, is a necessary condition for, and in the appropriate circumstances can precipitate, a given act or set of acts. For Douglas as for Burke, “the agent is the author of his acts,”68 and thus we can expect symbolic acts to “reflect a correspondence between a man’s character and the character of his behavior.”69 Recalling Burke’s distinction between symbolic and practical acts, and Reuckert’s assertions about an agent’s creation of a “unified attitude,” we can conclude that the symbolic acts an individual commits are designed to both express and establish his identity. Douglas’s notion of signature focuses on the symbolic element in an act that the agent does not for practical purposes but “because he is interested in doing it exactly as he does it.”70 By signature elements, Douglas explains, “we mean the things [a violent offender] does that aren’t necessary to the commission of his crime but are important for him to get emotional satisfaction out of the deed” (AM 322). Because the symbolic acts are performed for psychological and rhetorical rather than pragmatic purposes, there is an element of consistency about them that the offender cannot entirely bring under conscious control, and that causes him to both select and arrange components of the crime scene. As Burke explains, “when a state of mind is pronounced in quality, the agent may be observed arranging a corresponding pattern in the very properties of the scene.”71

V. Attitude as Incipient Form

As symbol-users, we form our identities in largely symbolic ways through a dialectic which, according to Rueckert,

is the natural and inevitable result of the complex and ever-changing conflict relation between the human agent and his scene. This dialectic of existence—the drama of human relations—centers in what Burke speaks of as every man’s attempt to build himself a character in order to establish and maintain an identity.72

The form in which that identity is expressed reflects the conjunction of act, attitude, and scene. Thus, the violent criminal chooses a form for his message that fulfills him psychologically and emotionally. For example, such features as “‘overkill,’ posing of the victim, torture, or ritualized mutilation” (MH 256–58) are not essential to the commission of the crime, but they are essential to the offender’s personal fulfilment in performing the act. The form of the act is the expression of signature, and is therefore “related to . . . ‘identity.’“73 Its role is to establish and express the offender’s power to “manipulate, dominate, and control” the victim. While the offender can choose to commit the act or not, and while the specific means he uses to effect the deed may change, “what he won’t change is the emotional reason he’s committing the crime in the first place” (JD 39). That emotional motivation is what produces the signature element in the form of the crime, which will be recreated over repeated crimes by the same offender, even in cases where it has become known to authorities, and “even if it makes carrying out the crime riskier or more difficult” (JD 145). Recreating this form in subsequent acts is a kind of ritual behavior that is itself part of the motive for the crime, and as such it contains symbolic elements that the offender will choose to repeat in order to obtain fulfilment from the act. “You might think that forearmed with some of my strategy, the killer may be able to avoid the traps we’d set up for him. But I can tell you from long experience, the more behavior he’d show us and the more we’d have to work with” (JD 69).

Douglas’s concept of signature, then, is the transformation of attitude into form. Burke observes that “a work has form in so far as one part of it leads [its intended audience] to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence.”74 The audiences for the violent offender’s act are multiple, including not only the media and the public, but also police and authorities who discover and study the crime scene; the victim, for as long as she remains alive; and, perhaps most important, the offender himself, who may even record the crime to be replayed and relived later, as Charles Ng and Paul Bernardo did. After all, as Douglas points out, “the crime—what he did to another person, the way he exerted power and control—was the most intense, stimulating, and memorable experience of his life” (AM 23) As his own audience, the killer is gratified by the signature sequence of the transformative act of scapegoating. But, since “we are capable of but partial acts, acts that but partially represent us and that produce but partial transformations,”75 the gratification is temporary, and the act must be repeated if the affirmation it provides is to be sustained. In other words, each individual act is but a single instantiation of a larger, unified act of transformation, and its repetitive form bears within it some predictive evidence of the offender’s subsequent behavior.

Because the function of form is to direct the attention, form can be considered one of what Burke describes as “the basic stratagems which people employ, in endless variations, and consciously or unconsciously, for the outwitting or cajoling of one another.”76 The offender can choose to carry out the act or not, but once the act has been initiated, the very sequence of its form creates a narrative momentum with its own kind of inevitability. Burke describes form as following “the arrows of desire,” which “are turned in a certain direction” by the very structure of the act; form thus represents both evocation and fulfillment of desire.77 Certainly the “plot” of the kind of violent crime described by Douglas “follows the direction of the arrows”78 of an offender’s desires, and equally—if Leyton is correct—of society’s values. In its various aspects, whether conventional, repetitive, or progressive, form consists of those elements that allow us “to recognize [the] rightness of a form after the event.”79

The plot of the offender’s drama is one of transformation, in which he redefines himself, the victim, and the social scene through a process of victimage; it is, in effect, the fulfillment of a script he may feel originates in the social order itself. And perhaps it does: Burke, Douglas, and Leyton alike suggest that society contributes to the formation of motive for such acts. Indeed, Leyton posits that, far from being a threat to the social order, a violent offender’s acts are instead an expression, even an endorsement, of the existing social hierarchy; they are “the logical extension of many of the central themes of [the surrounding] culture: of worldly ambition, of success and failure, and of manly avenging violence.”80 Thus multiple offenders become, in effect, “enforcers of the new moral order.”81 The scene itself, infused with what Burke refers to as “the spirit of hierarchy,” gives rise to the fulfillment of its own structures in the very form of the crimes produced within it, demonstrating once again “the perennial vitality of the scapegoat principle.”82

As we consider the power and role of form, we are reminded of Douglas’s observation that “it’s as if each of them is writing a novel about himself in which the final chapter is violent death” (AM 239). The final chapter, according to the dictates of form, is presaged by the initial chapters, where the predominant conflicts, the primary characters, and the key setting within which the plot unfolds are laid down. Nevertheless, despite the precipitating stressors in the scene and enticements of form, it is important to note that the act itself remains in the realm of “choice,” as Douglas repeatedly insists, and these agents “choose to do it because it makes them feel good” (AM 30).

The emotional and psychological fulfillment of the act are the results of a killer’s asserting an identity that he cannot otherwise achieve or sustain. Douglas points out that, if a predatory offender isn’t “neutralized” he will sooner or later reoffend, since the pattern in such cases is escalation. Such an offender will “not . . . stop on his own” (AM 356). Dramatistic analysis confirms what experience teaches: the desired transformations achieved through these “turbulent” acts are only temporary, and must be repeated with increasing intensity if the offender is to sustain the identity he has created. The extent of the agent’s estrangement and inadequacy also reveal why, in the end, the mere fantasy of transcendence is inadequate to sustain the attitude; to do so, the act must be performed for real. This is why violent and exploitative fantasy plays such an important role in the initiation and escalation of violent acts, and why it must be recognized for the danger that it poses—whatever its alleged “artistic merit.”83


Unprovoked violent crimes have become a form of public communication in which the message is one of “domination, manipulation, and control” (MH 105)—not just of the victim, but of the police, the media, and the public. As messages of retaliation against a social order, such acts imbue with power and social significance an “inadequate, helpless, hopeless, and impotent” individual who typically believes that he has been “unfairly maligned by those around him or by society in general” (AM 127). According to Jeanne Fisher, who specifically applied dramatistic methods to the analysis of a brutal, unprovoked killing, such individuals are typically “unable to use rhetorical strategies and patterns for socialization, conflict resolution, need fulfilment, and manipulating [the] environment,” and as a result “rely upon violent means”84 to achieve the kind of social satisfaction that has been lacking in their lives. Both Elliot’s and Douglas’s research bear out Fisher’s assessment.

It is clear that the unprovoked violence studied by profilers is not, as it is sometimes thought, motiveless crime; “there is, in fact, no such thing. Every crime has a motive,” even when that motive is not immediately evident to the casual observer (AM 45). In fact, Fisher points out that it has been our “inability . . . to understand fully [the] motive” of this kind of violence that has made it so terrifying and at the same time has compelled our attention.85 Dramatistic analysis substantiates this assertion, but it also suggests a further, somewhat darker possibility: perhaps on some level our fascination with these horrific dramas also represents a glimmer of recognition that these acts originate—as do the killers themselves—in the very social order that they attack.

The inadequate individual described by Douglas is steeped, as we all are, in a social context that glorifies “worldly ambition, . . . success and failure, and . . . manly avenging violence.”86 But most of us do not bring to this social scene the antisocial attitude that predisposes a predator to seek violent solutions to his feelings of inadequacy. Unable to attain social affirmation by legitimate means, he chooses a “turbulent act” that provides satisfaction on two levels. First, he achieves a sense of empowerment through his ability to exercise total control over a helpless victim. More than this, however, he is also granted instant celebrity as his messages of manipulation and control are displayed by the media for mass public consumption. Unfortunately for the individual victims of such brutal acts, their families, and their communities, the killer’s symbolic redemption comes at a terrible cost, one that we are not prepared to pay. Given the powerful symbolic motivation for the predator to continue his acts, how can we put a stop to the carnage?

Dramatistic analysis may provide one means. Well before Douglas and Ressler started their investigations, Virginia Holland saw that dramatism could be useful as “a means of developing a rhetorical critic who is a more expert judge as a social critic.”87 Holland predicted that dramatism, by enabling us to uncover “a correlation between [an agent’s] profession or his beliefs, and the strategies he uses” would in time “suggest a method of analysis which would give greater insights into the sociological and psychological factors that influence [agents], and into sociology and psychology per se.88 While Douglas’s system of profiling was designed as a practical method that “would help us learn more about real applied criminal psychology, not in an academic sense but in a way that would help in the field, in finding real offenders and solving real cases” (AM 19), it also points to broader social implications.

As an FBI profiler, Douglas’s first concern has been to put an end to the violent rampages of individual criminals. In this context, the starting point of the method is the crime scene itself, which encodes the remnants of the violent act. However, in Douglas’s books, “scene” is also conceptualized more comprehensively: while the violent criminal leaves his imprint on the crime scene, the larger social scene has left its own marks upon him, and thus is implicated in how he has turned out:

It’s my experience that serial killers are made rather than born . . . but it is unquestionably true that some kids, from as early as you can observe them, are far more aggressive than others, have far poorer impulse control, are noticeably antisocial. . . . If you start out with a kid predisposed like this, throw him into a severely dysfunctional environment, and then don’t do anything to intervene, you are pretty likely to come up with a violence-prone adult. (AM 38–39)

For Douglas, as for Burke, the explanation for symbolic acts can be found in the intersection of attitude, form, and scene; thus, not only does the crime scene offer an image of the offender, but the offender in turn offers an image of his social context, an implication also confirmed by Elliott Leyton. Douglas recognizes that an ability to read the attitudes of predators such as Ted Bundy, the self-described “most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet,” 89 can help us to end his specific acts of victimage, but he also emphasizes that such understanding can help us learn how to prevent the production of others so socially estranged that they turn to violence for social fulfilment. Because violent predators “are more ‘made’ than ‘born,’“ intervention is possible—if only “somewhere along the line, someone who provided a profound negative influence could have provided a profound positive one instead” (MH 383). Profiling can help us to identify how, and when, such intervention is needed.

Douglas’s work points toward the value of profiling beyond its usefulness as an investigative tool. A dramatistic approach teaches us how to “read” the symbolic messages of violent offenders, not only for the scene-act ratio laid out in the crime itself, but for the scene-act and scene-agent ratios that can help to explain how it is that two children who are “more aggressive than others, have far poorer impulse control, are noticeably antisocial” (AM 38) can turn out very differently, one of them a violent predator and the other a responsible citizen. In order to prevent the “manufacture” of more criminals of the type he studies, Douglas emphasizes the “absolutely vital” need for “recognition of serious behavioral problems with kids and intervention at an early age” (JD 363). Profiling can help to identify some of the behavioral problems that presage a violent and predatory adult. For example, Douglas and Ressler found “striking common denominators” in the experiences of their interview subjects, among them “at a very early age the formation of what we refer to as “homicidal triangle” or “homicidal triad.” This includes enuresis—or bed-wetting—at an inappropriate age, starting fires, and cruelty to small animals or other children” (JD 36). While Douglas stresses that not every child who displays such behavior become a violent adult, “the combination of the three was so prominent in our study subjects that we began recommending that a pattern (rather than isolated incidences) of any two of them should raise a warning flag for parents and teachers” (AM 37).

As Holland foresaw, the real value of a dramatistic form of analysis lies in its capacity to account for the social component of motivation and human action. While Douglas emphasizes that a violent predator’s acts are a product of choice, he also points out that the form and kinds of symbolic expressions the offender selects are shaped in part by the scene in which his drama takes place. “Twenty-five years of observation has told me that criminals are more ‘made’ than ‘born,’“ he explains (MH 383), and “the only thing that is going to cut down appreciably on crimes of violence and depravity is to stop manufacturing as many criminals” (JD 371). Ideally, reading the scripts of such acts in their incipient form can allow us to intervene while prevention is still possible, before violent fantasy becomes brutal reality. At the very least, understanding form and motive can help us to prevent additional acts of violence by repeat offenders. Only through such understanding can we hope to identify alternatives to the brutal price currently being extracted by those whose sense of estrangement drives them to seek redemption through acts of victimage.


1. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, The Anatomy of Motive (New York: Pocket Books, 1999) 11. Future references to this work, abbreviated as AM, will be placed in parentheses following quoted material in the text.

2. Jeanne Fisher, "A Burkean Analysis of the Rhetorical Dimensions of a Multiple Murder and Suicide" Quarterly Journal of Speech 60 (1974) 175-189; Elliot Leyton, Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986).

3. For example, Ray Surette, Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth, 1997); Nick Vandome, Crimes and Criminals (Edinburgh: Chambers, 1992); Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer (New York: Signet, 1989); John Bartlaw Martin, Why Did They Kill? (New York: Bantam,1953).

4. Leyton 16.

5. There appear to be some common patterns in their development, however: most act out their murderous fantasies on animals before progressing to brutalizing people, most show patterns of arsonist behaviour during childhood and adolescence, and most exhibit enuresis (bed-wetting) well beyond childhood. These features make up the so-called "homicidal triad" described by Robert Ressler, Ann Burgess, and John Douglas. Additional behaviour patterns, including obsession with firearms, isolation in social situations, seemingly idle threats, and casual talk of murder, have also been found to be significant. See Amy Goldman, "The Life of a Child: Childhood Traits of Serial Killers," online, 15 February 2001, Accessed

6. Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopath Among Us (New York: Simon & Schuster [Pocket Books], 1993).

7. Fisher 189.

8. Leyton.

9. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Journey into Darkness (New York: Scribner, 1997) 26. Future references to this work, abbreviated as JD, will be placed in parentheses following quoted material in the text.

10. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit (New York: Pocket Books, 1995) 13-14. Future references to this book, abbreviated as MH, will be placed in parentheses following quoted material in the text.

11. Dale Myers, With Malice (Milford, MI: Oakcliff Press, 1998), excerpts online, 29 August 2000, .

12. David Payne, "Dramatistic Criticism." Modern Rhetorical Criticism, 2nd ed., ed. Roderick P. Hart (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997) 283.

13. Leyton 27.

14. Payne 283.

15. Burke, "Key Terms," A Grammar of Motives (1945; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969) xvii.

16. Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969) xiii, xiv-xv.

17. Kenneth Burke, Dramatism and Development (Barre, MA: University of Massachussetts Press and Barre Publishers, 1972) 12.

18. Kenneth Burke, "Container and Thing Contained," A Grammar of Motives 11.

19. The choice of the masculine pronoun is deliberate, reflecting the fact that the overwhelming majority of serial murderers are male (exceptions include Aileen Wuornos and Karla Homolka).

20. Kenneth Burke, "Interaction: Dramatism," International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences , Vol. 6 (New York: MacMillan Co and The Free Press, 1968) 449. Burke seems to apply this notion fairly broadly, arguing elsewhere that even Aristotle is "highly Dramatistic" in his approach. See Dramatism and Development, 12.

21. Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954) 76.

22. For example, Donovan Conley, "The Courting of Dennis Rodman: A Study of Rebellion, Attitude, and Pentadic Populism," paper presented to the conference of the Northwest Communication Association (April 1997); Barry Brummett, "Symbolic Form, Burkean Scapegoating, and Rhetorical Exigency in Alioto's Response to the 'Zebra Murders,'" Western Journal of Speech Communication 44 (1980): 64-73; Barry Brummett, "Burkean Scapegoating, Mortification, and Transcendence in Presidential Campaign Rhetoric," Central States Speech Journal 32 (1981): 254-64; Marie Hochmuth, "Burkean Criticism," Western Journal of Speech Communication 21 (1957): 89-95;

23. For example, Wayne Petherick, "Criminal Profiling: How it Got Started and How it Is Used," online, 29 August 2000, ; B.E. Turvey, Criminal Profiling: an Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis (London: Academic Press, 1999); Janet L. Jackson and Debra A. Bekerian, eds., Offender Profiling : Theory, Research and Practice, Wiley Series in Psychology of Crime, Policing, and Law (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997); E.W. Hickey, Serial Murderers and Their Victims, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1997), among others.

24. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Anatomy of Motive; John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Journey into Darkness; John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, MindHunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit (New York: Pocket Books, 1995); John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Obsession (New York: Scribner, 1998). Future references to these latter two works, abbreviated as MH and OB respectively, will be placed in parentheses following quoted material in the text.

25. Burke, "Key Terms," xv.

26. Burke, "Key Terms," xvii.

27. Burke, "Container and Contained," xvii.

28. Burke, "Key Terms," xviii.

29. Edwin Black, "The Second Persona" Quarterly Journal of Speech 56 (June 1972): 132.

30. Myers.

31. Black 141.

32. Burke, Dramatism and Development 24.

33. Megan Huston, "Criminal Profiling as Rhetorical Analysis: An Application of the Dramatistic Pentad," MA Thesis (Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan, 2001).

34. Long before the first successful real-life criminal profile was offered by James A. Brussel, a New York psychiatrist, both Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed the process in their works. See, for example, Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841; New York: Penguin Books, 1985), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holms: All Four Novels and 56 Short Stories (New York: Bantam Classic and Loveswept, 1998).

35. Kenneth Burke, Dramatism and Development 12.

36. Burke, "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973) 191-220. Burke notes that, although when he wrote the article he had not yet given his system "the trade name 'Dramatism,'" his analysis was based upon the same "interrelated principles of method." See Dramatism and Development 20-21.

37. Fisher; Huston.

38. Kenneth Burke, "Definition of Man," Language as Symbolic Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966) 3.

39. Burke, "Container and Contained" 19.

40. Burke, Dramatism and Development 2.

41. Burke, "Definition" 2.

42. Burke, "Interaction: Dramatism" 447.

43. Burke, "Definition of Man" 11.

44. Kenneth Burke, Attitudes toward History, 2ed. (1937; Los Altos, California: Hermes Publications, 1959) 165 - 166.

45. Kenneth Burke, "The Party Line," Quarterly Journal of Speech 62 (February 1976) : 66.

46. Leyton 27.

47. Leyton 59, 61.

48. Burke, Rhetoric 19-20.

49. Burke, "Container and Contained" 16.

50. American Press, "Expelled Student Kills 17 in High School Rampage," Star Phoenix (27 April 2002) A1.

51. Joseph Gusfield, "Introduction," Kenneth Burke on Symbols and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989) 18.

52. Burke, "Container and Contained" 3.

53. Burke, Rhetoric 62. See also Lloyd F. Bitzer, "The Rhetorical Situation," Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (Winter 1968): 1-14.

54. Burke, Permanence and Change 29.

55. Virginia Holland, "Kenneth Burke's Dramatistic Approach in Speech Criticism," Quarterly Journal of Speech 41 (1955): 353.

56. Burke, "Container and Contained" 6-7.

57. Burke, "Container and Contained" 3.

58. Burke, "Interaction: Dramatism" 451.

59. Burke, "Key Terms" xxii.

60. Burke, "Container and Contained" 19.

61. Burke, "Container and Contained" 3.

62. Gusfield, "Introduction" 11.

63. Burke, "Key Terms" xv.

64. Kenneth Burke, Dramatism and Development 23.

65. Rueckert 45.

66. Kenneth Burke, Counter Statement (1931; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968) 125.

67. Burke, "Container and Contained" 20

68. Burke, "Container and Contained" 16.

69. Burke, "Interaction: Dramatism" 447.

70. Burke, Attitudes toward History 165 - 166.

71. Burke, "Container and Contained" 11.

72. Rueckert 42.

73. Burke, Attitudes toward History 165 - 166.

74. Burke, Counter Statement 124.

75. Burke, "Container and Contained" 19.

76. Burke, Grammar xvix.

77. Burke, Counter Statement 124.

78. Burke, Counter Statement, 124.

79. Burke, Counter Statement 125.

80. Leyton 2.

81. Leyton 300.

82. Burke, "Interaction: Dramatism" 451.

83. Kirk Makin and Robert Matas, "Top Court to Rule on Child Porn," Globe and Mail 23 January 2001: A3; Canadian Paediatric Association, "Paediatricians, Child Psychiatrists Condemn B.C. Court Ruling on Pornography" [News Release] 2 February 1999), online, 11 April 2002, http://www.cps.ca/english/publications/ ReleasesAdvisories/PornographyRuling.htm.

84. Fisher 189.

85. Fisher 181.

86. Leyton 2.

87. Holland 358.

88. Holland 357.

89. Leyton 86; Michaud and Aynesworth 3.

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“WE WRITE FOR THE WORKERS”: Authorship and Communism in Kenneth Burke and Richard Wright

John Logie, University of Minnesota

Abstract: This article supplements recent scholarship on Kenneth Burke’s notorious speech at the 1935 American Writers’ Congress by comparing Burke’s experiences and recollections of the Congress with those of his rough contemporary, Richard Wright. Both men later presented vivid accounts of this event as the point at which they recognized their own pronounced distance from their colleagues in the American Communist Party. Viewing these accounts in tandem offers a richer sense of the context in which Burke spoke. Burke and Wright’s reflections also point up the particular challenges facing those who aspired to the mantle of authorship within the Party’s structure.


INTRODUCTION: “Writers’ Congress” as Oxymoron?

KENNETH BURKE'S 1980 ACCOUNT of the reaction to his 1935 speech at the first American Writers’ Congress has proven irresistible for a generation of Burke scholars. This account is drawn from a fairly breathless profile of Burke entitled “Kenneth Burke: The greatest literary critic since Coleridge?” written by film critic Ben Yagoda for the obscure (and now defunct) arts magazine Horizon. Yagoda describes Burke as “devastated” by the response to the speech, and then quotes Burke offering this rich description of the events:

Joe Freeman [a party leader] gets up throbbing like a locomotive and shouts, “We have a traitor among us!” Later, when I was leaving the hall, I eavesdropped on a couple of girls. One of them was saying “Yet he seemed so honest!

I went home and lay down, but 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. Then I experienced a fantasy, a feeling that excrement was dripping from my tongue. It was just as near to hallucination as you can get. (68)

Frank Lentricchia’s 1983 monograph Criticism and Social Change commences with a précis of this passage, and the events of the Writers’ Congress are positioned as evidence of Burke’s critical prescience. But Lentricchia also suggests that Burke was deeply wounded by the response to the speech, entitled “Revolutionary Symbolism in America.” Lentricchia observes that Burke had, to that point, “deferred” publication of the 1935 speech “in his books and collections” (21). While the speech was readily available in the published conference proceedings, and later in a 1962 edited volume, Lentricchia ascribes particular significance to the speech’s absence from a work like Burke’s 1941 collection of roughly a decade’s critical writing, The Philosophy of Literary Form. Whether Burke actively suppressed the speech (as Lentricchia implies) or not, it is clear that Burke harbored a lingering discomfort with respect to the events of the 1935 Congress, and that the particular character of his reported distress offers significant insight into how Burke understood his responsibilities as a writer committed to meaningful symbolic action.

The appendix to Herbert Simons and Trevor Melia’s 1989 edited volume, The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, responds to Lentricchia by reprinting both Burke’s speech, described as “oft-mentioned but seldom seen” and “controversial” (viii) and the account of the discussion following Burke’s speech reprinted from the proceedings of the Writers’ Congress. The appendix also includes a lengthy excerpt from Lentricchia’s Criticism and Social Change, beginning with the above-cited précis of Burke’s nightmare visions. It is these renditions of the events of the Writers’ Congress, ultimately based in Burke as quoted in Yagoda, that are now commonly cited in Burke scholarship, even though the critical passage taken from Yagoda appears to be a pastiche, and, at one key point, a misquote of a longer passage in a 1979 Southern Review article by Malcolm Cowley.

In “1935: The Year of Congresses” Cowley quotes Burke at length (without citing another source) as Burke recounts the events of the Writers’ Congress. Though Yagoda’s article bears no citations, the now-famous Burke passage is very likely drawn from the Cowley article, which I must quote at length in order to point up what was lost or transformed in Yagoda’s distillation. The following is Burke’s remembrance as presented in Cowley’s 1979 article, framed by Cowley’s own description of the events:

Another paper followed [Burke’s], to which he gave little attention, and then came a discussion of all the papers. It was centered on Burke’s suggestion. [Burke] says, “The boys got going. Oof! Joe Freeman gets up throbbing like a locomotive and shouts, ‘We have a snob among us!’” Kenneth had become a snob by conceding that he would have to speak like a petty bourgeoius. “Then,” he continues, “Mike Gold followed and put the steamroller on me. A German emigré, Friedrich Wolf, attacked my proposal to address ‘the people’ rather than ‘the workers.’ He pointed to the similarity between this usage and Hitler’s harangues on das Volk. And so on, and so on, until I was slain, slaughtered.”

I listened to the diatribes that morning and was disturbed by them, for Kenneth’s sake, but was also amused. I had been attacked in much the same fashion, if with less violence, and hadn’t been hurt by the abuse because I thought it was uttered chiefly to affirm the speaker’s position as a loyal Communist. Kenneth felt wretched, though; his dream of fellowship was shattered. “I remember that when leaving the hall,” he tells us, “I was walking behind two girls. One of them said to the other, as though discussing a criminal, ‘Yet he seemed so honest!’

“I was tired out and went home,” he continues. “There had been a late party the night before, after the meeting in the big hall uptown. 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 wake with a start. Then I’d doze off, and suddenly again, ‘Burke!’ My name had become a 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. . . . I felt absolutely lost.” (279–80)

Readers can judge for themselves whether Yagoda borrowed from Cowley’s article withour acknowledging Cowley as his source. It is also possible that Burke’s recounting of this story had happened so regularly that not merely particular events, but also key turns of phrase were repeated by Burke with absolute consistency each time he was asked to recount this story late in his life. Whatever the case, the critical difference between the Yagoda account and the Cowley account is whether Freeman labeled Burke a “traitor” or a “snob.” If we accept Cowley’s account as the more complete and probable representation of the events, it seems clear that Burke endured the comparatively mild charge of snobbery at the Congress, but that this charge was sufficient to trigger not only the “hallucination” reported by Yagoda, but also Burke’s “wretched” feeling, Burke’s sense that a “dream of fellowship had been shattered” (both noted by Cowley) and Burke’s own description of himself as feeling “absolutely lost.”

Nevertheless, Burke’s speech is increasingly tethered to the Lentricchia text, and its more limited representation of Burke’s distress. In Ann George and Jack Selzer’s 2003 article on Burke and the American Writers’ Congress, George and Selzer begin by suggesting that “just about everyone has by now heard the story of the first American Writers’ Congress” (47). They later describe Lentricchia as having repeated “the oft told story of how Burke reacted to those responses by having hallucinations . . .” (49). George and Selzer then quote Lentricchia’s compressed version of Burke’s lament. But George and Selzer also suggest that Burke’s account of his distress was somewhat overblown, describing it as “nourished by Burke’s own tendency . . . to understand himself as part of the marginalized literary avant garde” (58). Lentricchia also acknowledges a measure of uncertainty with regard to Burke’s recollection, writing that descriptions of the events of the Congress by Burke and others might be “hysterical and inaccurate,” and “fictive or real” (22). George and Selzer ultimately conclude that the “bruising” Burke recalled as represented in the Yagoda piece “was in part Burke’s overly personal response to an overly charged situation brought about not by his speech but by the situation of radicals at the meeting” (58) and suggest further that “the response to Burke’s speech was very probably not all that hostile” (57). Cowley’s account complicates this picture, as Cowley acknowledges both being “disturbed” and “amused” by the response to Burke’s speech. Cowley suggests that, relative to Burke, he was able to place the response in a broader context and associate it with the pressures and demands of contemporary Party politics. This raises the question of why Burke was unable to follow Cowley’s approach. While George and Selzer have offered what will likely be regarded as the definitive account of Burke’s experience at the Writers’ Congress, their account does not wholly explain why the aging Burke attributed such tremendous significance to the responses his paper received at the 1935 Writers’ Congress.

George and Selzer’s suggestion that Burke was responding perhaps too personally to the Congress’ “overly charged situation” is reinforced when one is reminded that Burke was not the only speaker at the Congress who described his experiences as a speaker at the Congress as personally devastating. Richard Wright’s accounts of his experiences at the Congress superficially parallel Burke’s, and like Burke, Wright identified the Congress as marking the beginning of the end of his participation in party politics. In the pages that follow, I will contrast Wright’s accounts with Burke’s and demonstrate the degree to which the Congress demanded of both men a sustained and wrenching engagement with questions of authorship. In particular, both men argued at the Congress (albeit somewhat tentatively) that the mantle of authorship ought not remain the property of “intellectuals and middle class people.” By their own accounts, the sharply discouraging responses Burke and Wright received prompted pronounced changes in their understandings of themselves as writers working within and on behalf of the Communist Party. While both writers went on to write cogent and powerful texts which address the complexities of composers and their connections to their communities, both also would recall having left the 1935 Congress mourning their evident distance from their supposed comrades.

This paper examines how Burke and Wright came to articulate their roles and responsibilities as writers in the broader context of a movement which was struggling to reconcile competing constructions of authorship and party membership. In pursuing a sharpened sense of the context in which Burke and Wright spoke and also the circumstances that prompted their frustrations, this paper is informed by Stephen Mailloux’s rhetorical hermeneutics. Mailloux describes this practice as one which “takes an historical act of interpretation . . . and does a rhetorical analysis of the cultural conversations in which that act participated” (238–9) or, more epigrammatically, “us[ing] rhetoric to practice theory by doing history” (233). The “acts of interpretation” at the heart of this paper are, respectively, Burke’s now-(in)famous 1980 recollection of his discomfort at the Writers’ Congress and Wright’s account of his own distress at the Congress first published in The Atlantic as “I Tried to Be A Communist,” and later incorporated into his memoir, Black Boy. This paper will demonstrate that the cultural conversation in which Burke’s and Wright’s acts participated was an already pitched contest between the conventional understanding of what it meant to be an author on the one hand, and the demands of committed Communist Party participation on the other.

This tension is evident in The New Masses’ published call for participation in the American Writers’ Congress, composed by Granville Hicks. The call’s depiction of the revolutionary writer is divided into polarized portraits of, first, the socially disconnected individual author, and then, of a socially-connected composer overwhelmed by commitment to the cause:

Many revolutionary writers live virtually in isolation, lacking opportunities to discuss vital problems with their fellows. Others are so absorbed in the revolutionary cause that they have few opportunities for thorough examination and analysis. Never have the writers of the nation come together for fundamental discussion. (20)

This tension between the “isolation” of traditional authorship and the “absorption” which might await those who commit to the Party reverberates throughout the call.

Like Hicks, The New Masses’ editors also attempted to reconcile these competing roles. In their introductory paragraph, the editors make a special point of announcing that, unlike previous Party Congresses, “the American Writers’ Congress will not be a delegated body” (20). And the editors’ rationale for the lack of delegates confirms just how difficult it was, at the time, to coordinate the implicitly individual work of writing with the Communist program of collective struggle:

Each writer will represent his own personal allegiance. With hundreds of writers attending from all sections, however, and united in a basic program, the Congress will be the voice of many thousands of intellectuals, and middle class people allied with the working class. (20, emphasis added)

This last sentence suggests that the Writers’ Congress would speak primarily for, and possibly from within a larger community of “intellectuals” and “middle class people,” but all of these groups are positioned as “allies” and not members of the working class. This formulation implies that, at least as far as the editors of The New Masses were concerned, writers were understood to operate in spaces somewhat removed from the quotidian struggles of the proletariat.

The tentativeness with which the call forwards the notion of a gathering of writers testifies to the persistence of what Karen Burke LeFevre later identified as the “Platonic view of invention.” In her 1987 book, “Invention as a Social Act,” LeFevre describes this view as one in which:

Invention is regarded as an unfolding, a manifestation of an individual’s ideas, feelings, voice, personality, and patterns of thought. Like Plato’s metaphor of the soul whose wings unfold when it is reminded of the ideal forms it once beheld, this view of invention stresses the recovery and expression of an individual’s inner (and perhaps latent) voice or cognitive structures. Truth is sought through purely individual efforts. (1, emphasis added)

LeFevre argues that this Platonic view of invention has remained the dominant view within Western cultures, having been complemented and extended by traditional readings of the Romantic Author as a solitary, inspired genius. According to LeFevre, this view “is certainly in line with the aims of Western capitalistic societies, in which ideas and discoveries, like nearly everything else, become property owned by individuals, able to be bought and sold” (17–20). LeFevre also argues that the Platonic view of invention underpins many major movements in literary theory up to and including the New Criticism. LeFevre writes, “The New Critical legacy has accustomed a number of us to looking at individual details or characters, created by an individual author, and occurring in a self-contained text” (16). LeFevre’s broad argument suggests that Western cultures stretching from Plato to at least W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley are marked by their preference for individualism, whether philosophical, economic, or literary. In this light, the conflicted prose of the 1935 call can be seen as reflecting the deep entrenchment of the Platonic view of invention, which had by this time been reinforced by a narrow reading of Romantic poetic theory, and which thereby participated in what Herbert Hoover, in a 1928 campaign speech, termed “the American system of rugged individualism.”

1.) “Good Writers” and “Bad Strike Leaders”

The first American Writers’ Congress was held from Friday, April 26 to Sunday, April 28, 1935 in New York City. As outlined in the call, the Congress concluded with the founding of the League of American Writers, which would become the Communist Party’s central literary forum. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that an event like the Congress was at least likely, and perhaps bound to disappoint many attendees, as the 1935 Congress was, in part, an attempt by the party to establish a rarefied space for already-established writers.

At the Congress’ opening session, Earl Browder’s speech on “Communism and Literature” effectively released the assembled revolutionary writers from the sort of “administrative tasks” which, presumably, had absorbed too much of their time and talents:

The first demand of the party upon its writer members is that they shall be good writers, constantly better writers so they can really serve the party. We do not want to take good writers and make bad strike leaders out of them. (qtd. in Fabre 117)

Browder’s “good writer” is a writer first and a party member second, thereby maintaining the traditional Western bias towards authorial autonomy. And Browder’s approach is in keeping with the larger literary milieu, wherein composer and audience were understood by many leading literary critics to have achieved a newly productive level of separation. As Lentricchia suggests in Criticism and Social Change, the American critical orientations which dominated the 1930s, and which continue to resonate throughout the practice of literary criticism, cannot be readily reconciled with the Marxist program. Lentricchia writes:

One of the lessons to be drawn from Kenneth Burke’s career is that American (“self-reliant”) Marxism is fundamentally an absurd proposition. The “active” critical soul in America, from Emerson to Burke, joins parties of one, because it is there, in America, that critical power flourishes. (Lentricchia 6)

For Lentricchia, Kenneth Burke represents an exemplary “literary intellectual” whose individualism cannot be reconciled with Marxism’s expressly collective, collaborative agenda. Lentricchia places Burke in a “party of one” because, in Lentricchia’s estimation, critical power is derived from critical distance; from a disengagement with one’s contemporaries. While Lentricchia clearly means to praise Burke for establishing his own “party of one,” this argument maintains the sharp division between composer and community which both Burke and Wright challenged when they spoke at the 1935 Conference. Indeed, Lentricchia’s argument reinscribes the divisive rhetoric which characterized the bulk of the Congress, and ultimately drove Burke and Wright to seek other audiences.

In a 1965 symposium on the Writers’ Congress, William Phillips clarifies the then-favored understanding of the proper relationship between writer and worker:

In the thirties, I think we were acting on an implicit idea, the Marxian idea of the writer and the intellectual as the alienated man. And as the alienated man he naturally was outside of society. But having a little bit of class consciousness, he sided with the radical forces of the society. That was his political role, in alliance with the working class and other active and strong social forces. (“Symposium” 516)

Phillips’ recollection maintains and reinforces the division implicit within the call. The “alienated” writers and intellectuals are described as having a vague alliance with the working class, but this alliance somehow occurs without drawing writers and intellectuals “inside” society. Writers and intellectuals are linked to the working class only by their “little bit of class consciousness.” And the possibility that writers might themselves be members of either the working class or any of Phillips’ other undefined “social forces” remains unexamined. It was against this backdrop that both Burke and Wright, despite their latter-day reputations as isolated individualists, argued against the maintenance of the alienated writer/intellectual as a distinct figure, insulated from the larger social circumstance.

Over the past few decades, both Burke and Wright have been repeatedly described in terms that emphasize their distance from their contemporaries. In his 1998 book, Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village, Jack Selzer provides a concise summary of the key terms which have been mobilized to emphasize Burke’s supposed distance from his contemporaries. Selzer writes, “Burke has customarily been considered an ‘individual’ [attributed to Lentricchia], a solitary genius and a gadfly, as someone apart from movements and schools” (15). Similar terms are routinely applied to Wright. In his biography, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, Michél Fabre writes of Wright’s “refusal to belong to any kind of tradition,” and that “in addition to the current definition of Wright the novelist as an artist and storyteller, and of Wright the individual as militant, he can be considered as a lone explorer” (528, 530).

Both writers’ personal circumstances superficially support these characterizations. Burke lived for over seventy years in Andover, New Jersey, in what Tilly Warnock describes as a “rural scene, distanced from the mainstream” (90). In 1980, Burke’s closest friend, Malcolm Cowley described the then 83-year-old rhetorician, whose second wife had died ten years earlier, as “living a sort of posthumous life by himself” (qtd. in Yagoda 69). In Wright’s case, the chief marker of Wright’s putative separatism is his 1946 move from New York to Paris. In his introduction to the 1978 anthology, Richard Wright Reader, Michél Fabre writes “it has been alleged that Wright’s exile in France, where he lived from 1946 to his death in 1960, dealt a death blow to his creative imagination by estranging him from the situation of the blacks at home” (vii). Portrayals of “Burke the hermit” and “Wright the exile” circulate throughout biographies and critical assessments.

But very different portraits of these writers emerge when the events of the 1935 Writers’ Congress are revisited with particular attentiveness to Burke’s and Wright’s attempts to better understand how the committed revolutionary writer might best connect with and represent his larger constituencies. The Communist call for the abolition of private property necessarily implies dramatic and substantive revision of the American implementation of the traditional construction of authorship, which, predictably, centers on “ideas becoming property owned by individuals, able to be bought and sold.” But Burke and Wright’s contentious interventions within the Congress suggest that despite the members’ stated commitments to the Communist cause, autonomous American authorship was so entrenched that most of the Congress’ attendees were incapable of seriously engaging with the implications of their politics for the practice of writing. Unlike their fellow attendees, by the time of the 1935 Congress, both Burke and Wright were developing constructions of authorship predicated on their rejections of individual “genius” as the ideal model for the modern composer. Even so, both had demonstrably found this construction appealing early in their careers as writers.

2.) Portraits of the Artists as Young Men (or Vice-Versa)

Burke and Wright’s early writings and correspondence are littered with evidence of their respective attractions to the mantle of Romantic authorship.

In October of 1916, Malcolm Cowley—writing to Burke in the near aftermath of a meeting of the Harvard Poetry Society at which Cowley, by his own admission, had been a bit overserved—was likely the first of many to label Burke a “genius.” Cowley pays Burke this backhanded compliment: “I went home and read your letters again, and even under the genial influence of the Piehl, I felt that I could never do such work. I came to the conclusion for the first time that you were a genius” (31). Burke’s reply to this characterization, written in the context of a sharp rebuke to Cowley for his having internalized Harvard’s elitism, suggests Burke’s healthy skepticism at being so labeled:

Someday, when you are feeling particularly well disposed, you must tell me more explicitly why I am a genius. Cela m’intrigue. I am a little piqued. So far, all I know is that I am a genius because I have written letters which you, when you were drunk, decided you couldn’t write. (cited in Jay, Selected Correspondence 33)

But six months later, Burke had apparently embarked upon the project of re-shaping himself in the image of the stereotypical languorously contemplative Romantic Author. Burke writes:

To write novels, one must be careful not to live them; for it is the ruthless denial of action which fosters that feeling of incompleteness in us which makes us turn to art. People who do things blunt their sense of the need for expression; people who don’t do things are invariably thrown into a state of agitation; which is not healthy, but is productive. Art, of course, increases rather than lulls this dissatisfaction, but who, after all, would prefer satisfaction to art? Allow me to arraign alongside of little Kenney Nietzsche’s statement that he lived not for happiness, but for his work. I too, can assume as much genius as that bond of sympathy between him and me is good for. (42)

Burke’s description of himself as having chosen art over action precisely anticipates Frank Kermode’s 1957 description of the Romantic artist as “lonely, haunted, victimised, devoted to suffering rather than action—or, to state this is a manner more acceptable to the twentieth century, he is exempt from the normal human orientation towards action and so enabled to intuit those images which are truth” (Romantic Image 6).

By January of 1918, Burke was sufficiently immersed in his own artistry to issue a hesitating confirmation of his earlier letter, accepting the mantle of genius, and with it, the attendant suffering for his art:

I don’t want to be a virtuoso; I want to be a—a—oh hell, why not? I want to be a—yes—a genius. I want to learn to work, to work like a Sisyphus—that is my only chance. I am afraid, I confess it, but I am going to try hard. This is my final showdown. I am in it for life and death this time. Words, words—mountains of words—If I can do that I am saved. (56)

Despite the classical reference, Burke is clearly casting himself in the role of the stereotypical Romantic Author, and preparing to embark upon the grand struggle for truth and beauty. Cowley responds by (teasingly) expressing his admiration for Burke’s willingness to suffer in the grand Romantic tradition: “One of my chief ambitions . . . has been to starve in a garret for my Art. . . . If you carry out your plan, you will succeed in touching the imagination, something you have never done before” (58). But Cowley also identifies Burke’s January 6, 1918 letter as one in which Burke’s self-centered pursuit of genius has introduced a measure of distance between them: “Our friendship has usually consisted in our interchangeability as audience and performer. Now you ask the boon of being sole performer, and of allowing me to play audience continually” (58). Cowley also pointedly summarizes Burke’s letter: “I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . you write” (58). In fairness to Burke, it should be noted that his grandiose statement of purpose was composed when he was only twenty, and Burke is by no means the only person of meager years to characterize his artistic ambitions in such melodramatic terms.

But by the mid-1930s, Burke was articulating a dramatically revised construction of author and audience, and this revision was almost certainly a by-product of his increasing engagement with the principles and practices of the Communist party. Paul Jay cites Burke’s 1931 book, Counter-Statement, as tracing Burke’s “changing orientation as he moves, under the influence of Marxism, away from conceptualizing art in aesthetic terms as self-expression and toward viewing it as a socially symbolic act” (“Kenneth Burke” 70). And indeed, early in Counter-Statement, Burke revises the terms of Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion” as he recasts the artist’s expression as an expressly social act:

Self-expression today is too often confused with pure utterance, the spontaneous cry of distress. . . . [I]f it is a form of self-expression to utter our emotions, it is just as truly a form of self-expression to provoke emotion in others. (53)

If Counter-Statement bespeaks a Burke in transition from abstracted aesthete to social symbolist (or symbolic socialist), Burke’s 1934 New Masses article, “My Approach to Communism,” reveals a Burke whose orientation toward the social and away from individualistic models of the composing process is everywhere apparent. Burke writes:

A medium of communication is not merely a body of words; the words themselves derive their emotional and intellectual content from the social or environmental texture in which they are used and to which they apply. Under a stable environment, a corresponding stability of moral and esthetic values can arise and permeate the group—and it is this “superstructure” of values which the artist draws upon in constructing an effective work of art. In periods of marked instability, such a superstructure tends to disintegrate into individualistic differentiations. (20)

While Burke’s references to “stability of moral and ethical values” as the basis for artistic expression might seem at odds with his commitment to revolutionary politics, this “stability” ties into Burke’s more general rejection of a Romanticism rooted in the individual, rather than the social. In the above passage, Burke is pursuing a “stability” which recalls the expressly social mode of Classicism outlined by Cowley in an August, 1921 letter to Burke:

Classicism is the product, or at least is the modern expression of thickly settled countries where man has influenced that landscape to such an extent that it is an expression of man’s emotion. Classicism is an expression of man as a social animal.

Romanticism is the expression of man as a solitary animal, and of landscape independent of man. It is the natural expression of the more unkempt countries; Russia, Scandinavia, the United States.

In this article, Burke’s articulation of the artist’s dependence upon the social “superstructure” is emblematic of his increasing commitment to a critical program which blends elements of Marxism with a literary criticism inflected by Burke’s developing engagement with rhetorical theory. Thus Burke’s 1934 identification of a “stable superstructure” partakes both of Classicism (by way of Cowley) and Marxism (by way of Marx). And Burke does so by developing a brand of Classicism which, unlike its predecessors, does not depend upon the glorification of the powers that be. Indeed, in a 1923 article for The Dial, Burke argued that the present times were so “gnarled” that a new classicism would constitute “nothing other than howling rebellion,” which “in the present state of society [would] be much more radical than Bolshevism” (qtd. in Selzer 41). By 1934, Burke had largely realized his complex critical orientation, which blended Marxism with a classicism defined, in large degree, by a rejection of Romantic individualism in favor of a social orientation. It is with this approach to communism that Burke set off for the 1935 Writers’ Congress.

A similar shift from the individualistic to the social is evident in the first stages of Richard Wright’s career. Unlike Burke, Wright was never afforded the luxury of even considering a program of “ruthless denial of action.” But like Burke, Wright’s initial steps toward self-identification as a writer were cast in terms of the separation and suffering routinely cited as emblematic of Romantic authorship. These elements are foregrounded in the original manuscript of Wright’s memoir, Black Boy, in which the first section, entitled “Southern Night,” concludes with the nineteen-year old Wright abandoning his rural Southern past in order to move to Chicago.1 As Wright prepares to leave Memphis, he reflects upon his increasing separation from his social circumstances, and this is a separation which is effected through Wright’s engagement with canonical literary texts, including the works of Conrad, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Twain, and Poe, and more recent American fiction, including Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street and Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt and Sister Carrie. Wright writes:

My reading had created a vast sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived and tried to make a living, and that sense of distance was increasing each day. My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension and anxiety. (253)

“Southern Night” concludes with Wright’s sharp indictment of his Southern upbringing: “This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled” (257). And the second section, “The Horror and the Glory” begins with Wright testifying to his own isolation:

In all my life—though surrounded by many people—I had not had a single satisfying, sustained relationship with another human being and, not having had any, I did not miss it. (261)

Wright cites reading as his sole form of diversion and recreation, and, by extension, his sole link to any larger culture.

While Black Boy is often classified as “autobiography,” Wright consistently rejected the label. Faced with a publisher’s demand for an explanatory subtitle for the 1945 edition of Black Boy, in which the second half of the manuscript was not included, Wright offered subtitles which classified the work variously as “study,” “record,” “chronicle,” “odyssey,” and “story” (Fabre, Unfinished Quest 578). There is a tension among these terms, which reflects the fluidity with which Black Boy intertwines fact and fiction. And indeed, this tension circulates throughout Wright’s oeuvre. In his introduction to the second edition of The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, leading Wright biographer and scholar Michél Fabre acknowledges that Wright’s work usually occupies spaces between the poles of fact and fiction:

I have become more convinced that the line is thin indeed between fact and fiction; that history and biography which I considered objective re-creations are mostly constructions that bear the stamp of individual vision.” (viii)

Fabre anticipates the generic re-classification Geta LeSeur offers in the her 1995 book, Ten is the Age of Darkness wherein Black Boy is cited as an exemplary “Black Bildungsroman,”cannily blending the conventions of the historically European form with the rigors of African-American experience. As originally published, Black Boy concludes with a moment precisely paralleling Stephen Dedalus’ dramatic non serviam at the conclusion of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Like Stephen, Black Boy’s protagonist has chosen a self-imposed program of silence, cunning and exile in order to set the stage for his first forays into literary artistry.

In the paragraphs Wright composed in order to bolster the conclusion of the truncated 1945 edition of Black Boy, the protagonist’s sense of separation is soon counterbalanced by a recognition that literature might provide an avenue for meaningful social action. Wright recalls:

what enabled me to overcome my chronic distrust was that these books—written by men like Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson and Lews—seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles, out of the emotional impact of imaginative constructions of heroic or tragic deeds, that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light; and in my leaving I was groping toward that invisible light, always trying to keep my face so set and turned that I would not lose the hope of its faint promise, using it as my justification for action. (283)

But this paragraph, composed in part to compensate for the 1945 edition’s elimination of the second half of Wright’s manuscript, injects a level of political and social awareness into the narrative which Wright developed only after his decade-long engagement with the Communist Party. In the full edition of Black Boy, Wright’s recollection of this engagement constitutes almost the whole of the book’s second section, and this narrative centers on Wright’s fitful attempts to move from a disconnected, individualistic existence to an expressly social and situated mode of composition, in keeping with the stated principles of the Communist Party.

In “The Horror and the Glory” Wright describes his first forays as a writer in terms which situate him somewhere between the stereotypical Romantic Author and an Imagist on the model of Ezra Pound:

I strove to master words, to make them disappear, to make them important by making them new, to make them melt into a rising spiral of emotional stimuli, each greater than the other, each feeding and reinforcing the other, and all ending in an emotional climax that would drench the reader with a sense of a new world. That was the single aim of my living. (280)

In this passage, Wright constructs authorship as mastery, first of words, and then of the audience. This construction was entirely in keeping with then au courant understandings of the composing process. If we accept this passage as accurately reflecting Wright’s composing process circa 1928 (though the passage was written by Wright circa 1944) the young Wright appears as an adherent to the main currents of Modernism, blending aspects of Pound’s Imagism with T. S. Eliot’s “objective correlative” (Wright also writes of his attempts to “capture a physical state or movement that carried a strong subjective impression” very nearly paraphrasing Eliot’s proposed program in The Sacred Wood). As in many Modernist texts, Wright here positions readers as passive recipients of an enlightened author’s textual stimuli.

While Wright retroactively ascribes this reasonably cogent authorial program to his earliest forays as a writer, he was unable to produce any significant writing until after he joined the Chicago John Reed Club in 1933. Wright’s arrival coincided with an explosion of activity within the Club. In June of 1933, the Club began publishing Left Front, one of the many “little magazines” published by local Reed Clubs. According to Fabre, while the official party magazine, The New Masses, generally accepted only “established authors,” Left Front was established specifically to provide publishing opportunities for beginning writers with Communist sympathies. In the summer of 1933, the Chicago Club also committed to the recruitment of black members, and Abraham Aaron, Wright’s fellow worker at the Chicago Post Office, invited Wright to join. In “The Horror and the Glory” Wright’s fictionalized account of this exchange testifies to his willful isolation:

Sol repeatedly begged me to attend the meetings of the club, but I always found an easy excuse for refusing.

“You’d like them,” Sol said.

“I don’t want to be organized,” I said.

“They can help you to write,” he said.

“Nobody can tell me how or what to write,” I said. (315)

Nevertheless, in the fall of 1933, Wright attended his first Reed Club meeting. Wright recalls having been “impressed by the scope and seriousness of its activities” and describes the Club’s members as “fervent, democratic, restless, eager, self-sacrificing” (“Horror” 321). According to Fabre, Wright listened to the Club members discuss their plans for Left Front, and left the meeting with an armful of issues of New Masses and International Literature.

In “The Horror and the Glory” Wright depicts his response to reading these magazines in terms which both recall and reverse the polarities of the literary awakening at the end of “Southern Night.” While Wright’s reading of Conrad, Dreiser and other now-canonical writers created, by Wright’s account, a “vast sense of distance” between Wright and his social circumstances, his reading of the Communist magazines had very nearly the opposite effect. Wright recalls:

[M]y attention was caught by the similarity of the experiences of workers in other lands, by the possibility of uniting scattered but kindred people into a whole. My cynicism—which had been my protection against an America that had cast me out—slid from me and, timidly, I began to wonder if a solution of unity was possible. (318)

While the canonical novels had contributed to Wright’s sense of isolation, the Communist magazines encouraged Wright to think of himself in terms of his social connectedness. And Wright initially reveled in the opportunity to subsume his individuality for the cause:

I hungered to share the dominant assumptions of my time and act upon them. I did not want to feel, like an animal in a jungle, that the whole world was alien and hostile. I did not want to make individual war or individual peace. (318)

Wright’s willingness to subsume his individuality was grounded in his own sense of the inadequacy of his attempts at autonomous composition:

Something was missing in my imaginative efforts: my flights of imagination were too subjective, too lacking in reference to social action. I hungered for a grasp of the framework of contemporary living, for a knowledge of the forms of life about me. . . . (284)

In the following months, Wright joined the Communist party, was elected executive secretary of the Chicago John Reed Club, published his poems in Left Front, and became the magazine’s co-editor in April of 1934. In June, his poem, “I Have Seen Black Hands” was published in the Party’s primary outlet, The New Masses. Thus, it was as an established Communist author who had risen through the ranks—and as an official delegate—that Wright set out for the first American Writers’ Congress in New York.

3.) New York, New York, It’s A Hell of a Town

Like Kenneth Burke, Wright arrived in New York City having rejected autonomous authorship in favor of a newfound commitment to writing as social action. But Wright’s commitment was not mirrored by the Congress’ organizers. In “The Horror and the Glory,” Wright recounts the disastrous first evening of his trip. Wright and a group of fellow delegates hitchhiked from Chicago to New York in time for the Congress’ opening ceremonies on Friday, April 26, 1935. Upon the group’s arrival, the representatives of the New York John Reed Club were prepared to house the white delegates, but due to the potential racism of local hosts, were unable to provide accommodations for Wright. After the opening session, Wright wandered the streets of New York until nearly 3 a.m., when a chance meeting with a fellow Chicago club member resulted in three hours of rest on a cot in the kitchen of a relatively generous local. Wright describes Saturday as a day in which “I sat through the congress sessions, but what I heard did not touch me” (349). That evening, he again wandered the streets before finding accommodations at the Negro Young Men’s Christian Association in Harlem. The following morning, Wright “lay in bed thinking: I’ve got to go it alone. . . . I’ve got to learn how again” (350). While Wright here recalls Saturday evening as the point at which he first felt a decisive break with the Party, he nevertheless was an active participant in the Congress’ Sunday sessions.

On Sunday morning, the Congress’ final meeting was dominated by Granville Hicks’ paper, “The Dialectic Evolution of Marxist Criticism,” which, predictably, set the stage for the founding of the League of American Writers, scheduled for the end of the meeting. But the birth of the League was not an extension of the existing Party activities. Rather, it was a calculated substitution. While the Congress’ final gesture was the foundation of the League, its penultimate gesture was to vote the John Reed Clubs out of existence.

In her 1995 book The Long War: The Intellectual People’s Front and Anti-Stalinism, historian Judy Kutulas identifies the John Reed Clubs as having been “the only place young day laborers, bricklayers and factory workers might be taken seriously as writers” (41). Wright fit this profile: in the years immediately prior to his attendance at the Congress, he labored in Chicago as a postal worker, a street sweeper, a hospital porter, and a counselor at a South Side boys’ club. According to Kutulas, the first John Reed Club was

a spontaneous creation by young writers with nowhere to go. For a while they tried meeting at The New Masses’ offices, but the staff there treated them badly and they decided to find their own office and organize themselves. (40)

The John Reed Clubs were, within the context of the Party, tremendously popular. By 1934, there were at least thirty clubs with a membership of at least 1,200. And most of the thirty clubs, like the Chicago Club, published their own magazines. Nevertheless, late in 1934, in the last of a series of annual John Reed Club Congresses, the Communist Party leadership determined to eliminate the Clubs. Kutulas reports that the initial rationale for the closing was a desire to build a “more inclusive cultural organization with a more respectable membership” (90). But the stated goal of inclusiveness was, in Wright’s eyes, quickly compromised by the Party’s desire to lure “leading” writers. Wright attended this last John Reed Club Congress, and recalls his distress at hearing the Party functionaries’ plan:

Then I was stunned when I heard a nationally known Communist announce a decision to dissolve the clubs. Why? I asked. Because the clubs do not serve the new People’s Front policy, I was told. That can be remedied; the clubs can be made healthy and broad, I said. No; a bigger and better organization must be launched, one in which the leading writers of the nation could be included, they said. I was informed that the People’s Front policy was now the correct vision of life and that the clubs could no longer exist. I asked what was to become of the young writers whom the Communist party had implored to join the clubs and who were ineligible for the new group, and there was no answer. (344)

Thus, the first American Writers’ Congress, with its stated goal of forming the more “respectable” League of American Writers, represented a significant shift in the Party’s strategy with regard to the promotion of writing. And while Cowley identified the Writers’ Congress as a sign that “the sectarianism of the Third Period was going out of fashion,” and that the more inclusive politics of the Popular Front were taking hold, he also acknowledged that The New Masses’ call to Congress instantiated a new and sinister variant of the Third Period’s exclusivity:

About another important provision in the call, I heard no discussion. It was that members of the congress should be “writers who have achieved some standing in their respective fields.” This meant, in substance, that there were to be no invitations for the eager beginners, the kids, those in various cities who had flocked hundreds into John Reed Clubs or Pen and Hammer Groups. Though nobody spoke of the matter, it had already been decided that such groups were to be dissolved, their meeting places deserted, their dozens of little magazines allowed to die. (“1935” 275)

According to Kutulas, “only about half of the Reed Club membership” were invited to the first American Writers’ Congress, resulting in an eviction of “the youngsters and the proletarians” which, in Kutulas’ estimation, “had no cultural rationalization whatsoever” (91). Wright was among the Reed Club members invited, and his activities at the Congress culminated in a moving defense of the organization which had encouraged him.

Within the Congress’ Sunday meeting, prior to the closing votes, Wright was able to weigh in with a powerful account of his own isolation prior to his membership in the Chicago John Reed Club:

You may not understand it. . . . I don’t think you can, unless you feel it. You can understand the causes and oppose them, but the human results are tragic in peculiar ways. Some of the more obvious results are lack of contact with other writers, a lack of personal culture, a tendency toward escape mechanisms of ingenious, insidious kinds. Other results of his isolation are the monotony of subject matter and becoming the victim of a sort of traditional Negro character. (qtd. in Fabre 119)

Wright’s tenure within the Club was often marked by his own ambivalence. Wright often clashed with party leaders over his insistence that “writers . . . make their contributions in the form of their artistic work” (343). In practical terms, this meant Wright refused to write pamphlets for trade unions, and argued that the Party ought not attempt to “persuade writers to abandon imaginative work to write pamphlets” (342). At times, Wright’s membership in the Club, and by extension the Party, appeared to hinge upon Wright’s ability to maintain a near-absolute autonomy with respect to his writing, and Wright’s insistence on this autonomy occurred despite his oft-stated valuation of the structure and supportive culture of the Club.

In “The Horror and the Glory,” Wright depicts his tenure within the Chicago John Reed Club as a period very nearly marred by the Club’s intermittent commitment to his work as a writer of poetry and fiction. Wright’s resistance to the Party’s daily work was demonstrably offensive to his fellow Party members. In his 1971 autobiography, leading African-American Communist William L. Patterson sharply criticizes Wright for his failure to properly balance his own authorial impulses with the Party’s needs. Patterson observes that Wright

came to the Communist Party and was inspired to begin his career as a writer. Although he was convinced that the political philosophy of Communism was correct he did not see a book as a political weapon. He thought that the creative genius of a writer should be freed from all restrictions and restraints, especially those of a political nature and that the writer should do as he pleased. (149)

Patterson’s critique paints Wright as an autonomous genius incapable of the social sensitivity that characterizes the revolutionary writer. But while Wright did chafe at the Reed Clubs’ restrictions and restraints, at the Writers’ Congress, Wright was the Clubs’ sole vocal defender:

A New York Communist writer summed up the history of the clubs and made a motion for their dissolution. Debate started and I rose and explained what the clubs had meant to young writers and begged for their continuance. I sat down amid silence. Debate was closed. The vote was called. The room filled with uplifted hands to dissolve. Then there came a call for those who disagreed and my hand went up alone. I knew that my stand would be interpreted as one of opposition to the Communist party, but I thought: The hell with it . . .

New York held no further interest and the next morning I left for home. (“Horror” 350, ellipsis in original)

While Wright often was insistent upon his own autonomy, at the Congress he defended the Reed Clubs because they offered relief from the isolation he had felt as he struggled to become an author. Ironically, Wright’s defense of the Clubs, at least as depicted by Wright in “The Horror and the Glory,” returns him to a position of isolation, of autonomy by default. Wright’s memoir casts the Congress at the point where he reverted to going it alone.

Wright’s depiction of these events involves a measure of dramatic license. Wright biographer Gayle Addison asserts that Wright remained in New York to attend Broadway theater, and that his mood was by no means as bitter as Wright’s account suggests. Addison writes that “as he headed back to Chicago after the Congress, despite his disappointing episode there was a feeling of accomplishment, even of elation,” which Addison attributes to Wright’s having been selected as one of fifty members of the National Council for the League of American Writers (82). Similarly, Fabre’s biography lists five plays which Wright saw after the Congress, including three(!) by Clifford Odets and Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Tobacco Road. Fabre also writes that Wright “joined the League’s contingent of the May Day parade and knew the exhilaration of participating in a mass demonstration” (120). But while Wright’s account of his departure from the Congress is almost certainly historically inaccurate, it nevertheless accurately reflects Wright’s identification of the Congress as the point at which his eventual departure from the Party became an inevitability. Wright properly identifies the first American Writers’ Congress as the point at which the American Communist Party formalized a program of support for writers from outside the working class, while dismantling the organizations which had encouraged and published the writing of the proletariat. And while Wright was no doubt flattered by the invitation to join the League, this compliment could not make up for the isolation Wright clearly felt as the sole defender of the John Reed Clubs.

In “The Horror and the Glory” Wright describes himself as “free of all party relations” immediately after the Congress (350). In reality, it took Wright nearly seven years to engineer a decisive break with the Party. Wright’s biographers have struggled to account for the sluggishness of Wright’s response. Fabre attributes the delay to Wright’s belief that in Chicago, “there was no way of being heard as a progressive writer independent of the Party” (120). Addison suggests that the Party functioned much as Christianity had for his Wright’s mother and grandmother, “loom[ing] omnipresent and magisterial” and thereby foreclosing Wright’s ability to leave. Addison’s argument is heavily hedged. She writes that Wright “probably did not make the connection” between the Party and the familial religion, and further, that Wright “needed the Party in a way incomprehensible to even himself” (92–93). But a more satisfying explanation for Wright’s ongoing participation in the League of American Writers and attendant Communist Party functions becomes available when one pairs Wright with the other writer whose experience at the Congress was marked by a profound sense of rejection and isolation: Kenneth Burke.

4.) “I Had a Terrific Desire to Belong . . .”

Wright’s assertion that the Congress’ Saturday sessions left him unmoved is somewhat surprising, in that Saturday was the day that Burke delivered “Revolutionary Symbolism in America.” Wright almost certainly attended Burke’s session. Fabre’s definitive biography of Wright lists Burke’s Permanence and Change as one of a handful of books in Wright’s “meager” library in 1935 (112). As most of these books were novels (including works by D. H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust) it seems indisputable that Burke’s critical writing had a special significance for Wright. Another of Wright’s books was Henry Hart’s edited volume of the speeches from the Writers’ Congress, which cites Burke’s paper as one of two “which provoked the most discussion” within the large session (165), and Cowley identifies the discussion following Burke’s paper as the “central dispute” of the Congress (277). It is difficult to imagine Wright failing to have noted the dramatic exchanges surrounding Burke’s speech. Indeed, Ernest Miller has argued that Burke’s critical writing, and “Revolutionary Symbolism” in particular had direct repercussions in Wright’s fiction, concluding: “[a] small book would be required to detail the various ways in which Burke’s theories have relevance to Wright’s works and what he was seeking to do in his fiction” (181). But Wright’s account might reflect the degree to which he was already distancing himself from the Party as it wa embodied at the Congress.

While Wright’s experience of exclusion upon arrival in New York had already profoundly shaken his faith in the Party, Kenneth Burke began his Saturday morning speech still hungering to share the dominant assumptions of his time. Years later, Burke recalled, “I didn’t want to do anything that in any way would be considered wrong. I had a terrific desire to belong; as they put it later in the mass media, you know, ‘togetherness’” (“Thirty Years Later” 506). Burke sought this “togetherness” despite his own stated unwillingness to join the Communist party, so there were, no doubt, limits on Burke’s “desire to belong.”

The central argument within Burke’s speech is that “the people” be substituted for “the worker” within anti-capitalist propaganda. Burke carefully articulates his rationale for the proposed shift in terminology:

In suggesting that “the people,” rather than “the worker,” rate highest in our hierarchy of symbols, I suppose I am suggesting fundamentally that one cannot extend the doctrine of revolutionary thought among the lower middle class without using middle-class values—just as the Church invariably converted pagans by making the local deities into saints. I should also point out that we are very close to this symbol of the people” in our term “the masses,” which is embodied in the title of the leading radical magazine. But I think that the term “the people” is closer to our folkways. . . . (269–70)

Burke’s argument both anticipates and extends the then-burgeoning movement by many members of his audience away from the Third Period’s extremist isolationism towards the Popular Front’s collective and collaborative agenda. Cowley goes so far as to label Burke an “innocent” whose speech was “more daring than he recognized” because it exposed Burke as “a premature adherent of the People’s Front” (“1935” 279). Indeed, Burke was encouraging a rhetorical strategy which would have the effect of eliding the class boundaries which were so apparent in the call’s specification of “intellectuals, and middle class people allied with the working class.” Burke’s speech specifically rejects the habits of thought which produced this stratified formulation as falling outside the boundaries of artistry. Burke argues:

In the last analysis, art strains toward universalization. It tends to overleap imaginatively the class divisions of the moment and go after modes of thought that would appeal to a society freed of class divisions. It seeks to consider the problems of man, not of classes of men. (272)

Burke goes on to argue that while his argument “bears the telltale stamp of my class, the petty bourgeoisie” he believes that within an American context, the recruitment of this class as well as the proletariat is necessary. To this end, Burke calls upon each “imaginative writer” to “propagandize his cause by surrounding it with as full a cultural texture as he can manage ” and participate in a “process of broadly and generally associating his political alignment with cultural awareness in the large” (273). Burke is suggesting that the lines dividing the classes are permeable, and that much is to be gained when composers from all classes make informed and negotiated crossings of these boundaries.

The edited account of the discussion following the session in which Burke spoke suggest that the assembled audience first addressed itself to Edwin Seaver’s talk on “The Proletarian Novel,” but this discussion nevertheless addresses the central thrust of Burke’s argument. Seaver’s argument was that “the proletarian novel could be one that treated any subject matter provided it did so from the standpoint and in the interest of the working class” (“Discussion” 274). Martin Russak’s response addresses both Seaver’s and Burke’s arguments, in turn:

I think the proletarian novel has got to be, . . . and is already becoming, a novel that deals with the working class. . . . I think that, if we completely understood the nature of class division, we would not say that all people are the same. In the working class, we have a distinct kind of human being, a new type of human being with an emotional life and a psychology that is different, and distinct, and with which we should deal. (“Discussion” 274)

Russak’s response moves from Seaver’s limited argument about the permeability of boundaries surrounding the proletarian novel, to Burke’s larger argument, which suggests that the boundaries surrounding the proletariat itself might also be permeable, and productively permeable at that. Russak’s response counters with a rigorous insistence upon the specificity of the proletariat.

Michael Gold’s response takes issue with Russak’s argument, and supports Seaver’s suggestion anyone with the the proper “viewpoint” might compose revolutionary literature. But Gold then turns to an argument which appears to have Burke as its target:

I think the tone of many of our papers this morning showed that our literary movement is in danger of becoming a petty bourgeois movement. I think we must guard against that. It cannot become that. It is our main task to see that a strong working class is developed in the United States to lead the revolutionary vanguard. We may not lead it. So I think one of the basic tasks of every writer is to stimulate and encourage and help the growth of proletarian literature which is written by workers. (“Discussion” 275)

Gold counters Burke’s suggestion that it is “vitally important to enlist the allegiance of [the petty bourgeoisie]” by arguing instead that the exclusive focus, at least for the time being, should be the encouragement of writing by and from the working class. Gold concludes that “this picture of real life, of real working class struggle” ought to be used as “the final answer we can give to the abstractions of the bourgeoisie” (“Discussion” 276). While Burke’s speech had not yet been directly addressed, Russak and Gold’s responses establish the audience members’ resolute rejection of the bourgeoisie as potential proletarian ally.

The edited transcripts of the audience response to Burke’s paper do not quite support Burke’s famous nightmare visions of his name having “become a kind of charge against me—a dirty word” and “excrement dripping from my tongue,” but the critiques of Burke’s speech by Allen Porter, Friedrich Wolf and Joseph Freeman (Burke’s “locomotive”) are indeed harsh, with both Wolf and Freeman pointing to an uncomfortable link between Burke’s “people” and Hitler’s das volk. Porter argues that Burke’s proposed substitution of “people” for “worker” has “historically . . . been the ruse of the exploiting class to confuse the issue” (“Discussion” 276). In a similar vein, Wolf argues that:

Substitution of the symbol “people” confuses the interests of this fundamental and all-important class and renders a picture of society that is not merely un-Marxian but one which history has proven to be necessary for the continuation of power of the exploiting class. (“Discussion” 277)

Freeman’s lengthy fulmination concludes: “If we do not get lost in ‘myths,’ if we stick to the reality, it is only in the working class that the other exploited classes of society—including the intellectuals—can find leadership” (“Discussion” 278). Over the course of these critiques, Burke was painted as at best, a naive member of the petty bourgeoisie, and at worst, a perpetrator of a brand of deceit and repression redolent of fascism. With the benefit of hindsight, this response seems entirely predictable, given the distance between Burke’s idiosyncratic “Marxoid” positionings and the politics underpinning the Congress.

5.) “Workers” vs. “People”

While contemporaneous critics hesitate only momentarily before labeling Burke a “Communist critic” (Allan Tate does so in a 1936 review of a Burke article, 363) and a “Marxist” (Charles Glicksberg invokes the label in his 1937 review of Permanence and Change, 74), Burke’s connections to Marxism and Communism are complex and convoluted. In a 1991 article on the revised editions of Permanence and Change which eliminated the 1935 edition’s direct references to Communism, James Arnt Aune argues that each edition produces a corresponding Burke. Aune frames his discussion by invoking Borges’ short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which an author’s replication of the Cervantes text centuries in the twentieth century is textually identical to the original, but nevertheless distinct in its meaning because of the radical shift in its authorship and context. Similarly, Aune argues, each successive edition of Permanence and Change offers up a distinct Burke, beginning with “the pragmatic Marxist” who composed the 1935 edition, proceeding to “the premature neoconservative critic of Marxism” who oversaw 1954’s second revised edition, and concluding with “Burke the unrepentant ‘left liberal’” who composed the afterword for the 1984 University of California Press edition (235). Despite Aune’s establishment of this rather orderly progression, a few paragraphs later, he begins to question the first of his characterizations:

Did Burke develop the seeds of a rhetoricized, pragmatic Marxism in 1930s [sic] only to have this project sidetracked by a complex set of forces including McCarthyism; the lack of intelligent, independent Marxist thought in the United States; Burke’s own petty bourgeois class origins; his privileging of art over politics throughout his work; and his own experience of “the god that failed”? Or was Burke all along a non-Marxist American original, a kind of anarchic individualist‚ far closer to the spirit of Emerson, James, Dewey, or Veblen? (235)

Aune’s inability to maintain Burke as “pragmatic Marxist” is attributable, in part, to the lingering appeal of rugged individualism (note Aune’s pairing of independence and intelligence, and the forwarding of the “American original” as the preferred counter to the “Marxist”). But Aune also is struggling to make sense of a conflicted and self-contradictory body of work, which opens itself to a variety of interpretations. In a 1932 letter to Cowley, Burke tends toward the American original, writing:

I am not a joiner of societies. I am a literary man. I can only welcome Communism by converting it to my own vocabulary. . . . My book [Auscultation, Creation and Revision] will have the communist objectives, and the communist tenor, but the approach will be the approach that seems significant to me. (Jay, Selected Correspondence 202)

But two years later, Burke is fully inhabiting the mantle of the pragmatic Marxist in his 1934 New Masses article “My Approach to Communism,” in which Burke flatly asserts:

Communism alone provides the kind of motives adequate for turning the combative potentialities of man into cooperative channels. . . . The Communistic orientation is the only one which successfully produces the combative-coöperative 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. (19)

The tension between the “literary man” of 1932 and the “harnessed genius” of 1934 figures prominently in Don Burks’ 1991 article, “Kenneth Burke: The Agro-Bohemian Marxoid,” in which Burks concludes that Burke’s Communism is both pronounced enough and personal enough to warrant the coining of a descriptor drawn from two of Burke’s favored self-descriptions. In labeling Burke an “Agro-Bohemian Marxoid,” Burks balances the binary, acknowledging Burke’s evident Communism without requiring Burke’s idiosyncratic formulations to adhere to Party doctrine. By contrast, drawing on materials from the same period, Kutulas describes Burke as “neither a Communist nor a very enthusiastic front worker” whose “appearance on the Congress program was testimony to the new and more inclusive Party line” (92). While Kutulas’ flat assertion that Burke was not a Communist is an overstatement, Kutulas is no doubt correct in identifying Burke’s lack of enthusiasm for the day-to-day chores of the Party’s front.

It is, no doubt, Burke’s distance from the internecine struggles that set the stage for the American Writers’ Congress which assured his proposed shift from “worker” to “the people” would be poorly received despite its arguable prescience. While the audience members who responded to Burke’s speech all were careful to specify both the centrality and ultimate leadership position of the proletariat, all did so against the backdrop of a Congress of writers which had been called, in large degree, to finalize the dissolution of the organizations which arguably were already achieving the goal articulated by Gold in his rebuke of Burke. Indeed, by 1935, the John Reed Clubs had established themselves as remarkable sites for the stimulation and growth of proletarian literature which was “written by workers.”

When Kenneth Burke rose to speak at the Congress, he was speaking before an elite cadre of writers who had achieved “some standing in their respective fields,” without, in most cases, “rising” from the ranks of the working class. More to the point, Burke’s audience was, for the most part, a group of writers who understood themselves as wholly distinct from the members of the proletariat: so distinct, in fact, that several of the members of Burke’s audience had already engineered the eradication of clubs which had served as sites for the Party’s most direct interactions with members of the proletariat. In proposing “the people” as central symbol, Burke was forwarding a term capacious enough to absorb workers and writers alike, and in so doing, he was undermining the Congress’ promise to regard writers as writers whose work was readily distinguishable from both industrial labor and direct revolutionary action.

When Burke rose to speak in his own defense, one of the charges he chose to address was that he had “made Communism appear like a religion” (“Discussion” 279). In response, Burke said:

As the Latin religio signifies a binding together, I take religion and Communism to be alike insofar as both are systems for binding people together—and the main difference at the present time resides in the fact that the Communistic vocabulary does the binding job much more accurately than the religious vocabulary. (“Discussion” 279)

While Burke’s rhetoric is entirely in keeping with the Popular Front’s expansive coalition-building agenda, Burke’s suggestion that Communism might bind together individuals from disparate classes much as the church had, again has the effect of collapsing the distinctions between workers and writers. As the fierceness of the response to Burke’s speech indicates, these distinctions were tremendously important to many of the members of his audience. And while the respondents honored the proletariat in their speeches, they had nevertheless convened a Congress populated almost wholly by “intellectuals and middle-class people allied with the working class,” which ultimately eliminated dozens of Clubs and magazines providing direct access to the writing welling up from the attendees’ proletarian “allies.”

The tensions between the class-based stratifications and separations codified by the 1935 Congress’ formation of the League of American Writers and the more expansive and inclusive line advocated by Burke are thrown into relief in an anecdote which is very likely rooted the 1935 May Day parade which took place shortly after the Congress. Burke was likely marching only steps away from Richard Wright, who, like Burke, had been appointed to the League’s National Council despite having challenged the Party line. Though neither of the following two narratives precisely specifies a 1935 date, each documents events likely to have been the outgrowth of the 1935 Congress. The first occurs in Norman Podhoretz’s tart 1999 memoir, Ex-Friends:

Once, in the 1930s, the literary theorist Kenneth Burke, whose writings were very arcane and obscure, was marching through Union Square in downtown New York in a May Day parade sponsored by the Communist Party. A fierce little man, Burke was calling attention to himself by energetically waving a placard, both sides of which bore the inscription WE WRITE FOR THE WORKERS. Another critic, Harold Rosenberg, towering in his great height over the dense crowd lining the parade route, spotted Burke and his placard. “Kenneth,” the anti-Stalinist Rosenberg yelled with all the sarcasm he could get into his voice, “you write for the workers?” To which Burke yelled back, “It’s an ambiguity in the preposition for!” (14n.)

In the published transcript of a 1965 symposium which gathered many of the key players at the first Writers’ Congress, including Burke, Cowley and Granville Hicks, William Phillips recalls a similar scene:

I remember one incident, Kenneth Burke, when you and I, and a lot of other people, were marching in a May Day parade. I’ve told this story many times and I think it illustrates a lot of things. I remember your joining in the shout, “We write for the working class,” and I remember wondering whether Kenneth Burke really thought he wrote for the working class. How many workers read Kenneth Burke? (“Thirty Years” 501)

Burke’s responses shed tremendous light on the controversy surrounding “Revolutionary Symbolism in America.” Burke begins by admitting that he does not recall the incident, but acknowledges that it may have happened before explaining that “[f]ew can subscribe to all of the slogans printed or shouted in a parade, but I probably joined in the shouting” (“Thirty Years” 501). Burke’s clear import in this response is that he now does not and then did not subscribe to the slogan, “We write for the workers/working class” which, as the Podhoretz version of the anecdote suggests, betrays an uncomfortable ambiguity with respect to what it means to write “for” the workers. Both Rosenberg (within Podhoretz’ account) and Phillips are questioning the notion that Burke, already well-known for his challenging prose style, might understand himself to be composing for an audience of workers, whom Rosenberg and Phillips believed to be incapable of a meaningful engagement with such prose.

Of course, as Burke’s 1965 response suggests, he was chanting or waving a slogan well distant from the positions he had outlined in his speech at the Congress. Indeed, in a later retort to Phillips, Burke asserts that his speech directly countered the slogan attributed to him by Rosenberg and Phillips:

That was the basis of my talk at the first Writers’ Congress. That’s precisely what they got after me for: I said I couldn’t write for the working class. That was the irony of the case. (“Thirty Years” 501)

Thus, while Burke’s general argument is for the development of a “propaganda by inclusion” centered around the symbol of the people in order to supplant the “propaganda by exclusion,” which attends what Burke terms, “the strictly proletarian symbol,” Burke admits that as a member of the petty bourgeoisie, he cannot “write for the worker.” But Burke’s program is expressly directed at promoting cultural awareness among writers and among workers in ways which hasten the obsolescence of the class-centered compartmentalizations formalized by the first American Writers’ Congress. Burke cannot write for the working class because he fully expects the members of the working class to write for themselves. And he concludes his speech by encouraging all writers to “propagandize by inclusion, not confining themselves to a few schematic situations, but engaging the entire range of our interests” (“Revolutionary Symbolism” 273). In the decades since the Congress, Burke’s argument has come to be seen as both prescient and benign. (At the 1965 symposium, Cowley reads an excerpt from the heart of Burke’s speech, and William Phillips immediately responds, “What was so unorthodox about that?”) But, within the context of a Congress which reinforced the hierarchical divisions between “the intellectuals, and middle class people” and their supposed allies within the “working class,” Burke’s turn from “the proletariat” toward the expansive, relatively classless symbol of “the people” constituted a threatening critique of the proceedings.

While Burke left the Congress convinced that his argument had been wholeheartedly rejected by its audience, there is considerable evidence that Burke’s argument did appeal to Richard Wright, whose subsequent defense of the John Reed Clubs parallels Burke in its insistence upon a Party open to meaningful interaction with the members of the class it professes to champion. Wright’s own development as a writer, achieved while working menial jobs and attending John Reed Club meetings, reinforces Burke’s tacit suggestion that the members of the working class might not need anyone to “write for” them. Indeed, Wright’s experience suggests that “We write for the workers” is problematic not only in its preposition, but in its subject and object.

Shortly after the Congress, Wright commenced writing a short story, “Fire and Cloud” which demonstrates how powerfully Burke’s speech had resonated with Wright. Wright’s attention to Burke’s argument is first suggested in a scene in which the protagonist, an African-American Reverend, Dan Taylor, is challenged by his city’s mayor, and the chief of police:

“You know these Goddam Reds are organizing a demonstration for tomorrow, dont you?” asked the mayor.

Taylor licked his lips before he answered.

“Yessuh. Ah done heard a lotta folks talking erbout it, suh.”

“That’s too bad, Dan,” said the mayor.

“Folks is talking about it everywhere . . .” began Taylor.

“What folks?” interjected Bruden.

“Waal, mos everybody, suh.”

Bruden leaned forward and shook his finger in Taylor’s face.

“Listen, boy! I want you to get this straight! Reds aint folks! Theyre Goddam sonafabitching lousy bastard rats trying to wreck our country, see? Theyre stirring up race hate! Youre old enough to understand that.” (Richard Wright Reader 310–11)

Wright’s dialogue places within the mouth of an evidently racist police office a variation on the arguments that Burke faced at the conclusion of his speech. Burke argued that “the people” was “closer to our folkways” than the various permutations of “the worker.” Friedrich Wolf’s retort centers on Burke’s invocation of an expansive American folk culture. Wolf asserts that Hitler’s “utilization of the myth of ‘das Volk,’—which Wolf translates as “the people”—led directly to the fascist seizure of power in his homeland. Wolf continues:

Substitution of the symbol “people” confuses the interests of this fundamental and all-important class [i.e. “workers and farmers”] and renders a picture of society that is not merely un-Marxian but one which history has proven to be necessary for the continuation of power of the exploiting class. (“Discussion” 277)

Or, to crudely summarize, Reds ain’t folks! While Wolf no doubt arrives at his conclusion from a far more sympathetic and cogent ideological framework than Wright’s fictional Chief Bruden, their conclusions revolve around the maintenance of discrete categories which distance “the people” from the Party.

In the story’s climactic scene, Reverend Taylor returns from a vicious beating at the hands of racist thugs. Taylor’s exchange with his son both echoes Burke, and extends Burke’s argument to the racially polarized circumstances of Depression-era African-Americans:

“We gotta git wid the people, son. Too long we done tried t do this thing our way n when we failed we wanted t turn out n pay-off the white folks. Then they kill us up like flies. Its the people, son! Wes too much erlone this way! Wes los when wes erlone! Wes gonna be wid our folks. . . .”

“But theys killin us!”

“N theyll keep on killin us less we learn how t fight! Son, its the people we mus gid wid us! Wes empty n weak this way! The reason we cant do nothin is cause wes so much erlone. . . .”

“Them Reds wuz right,” said Jimmy.

“Ah dunno,” said Taylor. “But let nothin come tween yuh and yo people. Even the Reds cant do nothin ef yuh lose yo people. . . .” Fire burned him as he talked, and he talked as though trying to escape it. “Membah what Ah tol yuh prayer wuz, son?”

There was silence, then Jimmy answered slowly:

“Yuh mean lettin Gawd be so real in yo life that everything yuh do is cause of Im?”

“Yeah, but its different now, son. Its the people! Theys the ones whut mus be real t us! Gawds wid the people! N the peoples gotta be real as Gawd t us! We cant hep ourselves er the people when wes erlone. . . .” (Richard Wright Reader 335–6)

In “The Horror and the Glory,” Wright remembers the evening of Saturday, April 27, 1935 as the point at which his own distance from the Congress prompted him to contemplate re-learning how to “go it alone.” But his very next fictional effort strikes precisely the opposite note: and it is Burke’s note.

In “Fire and Cloud,” Dan Taylor’s recognition that “the people” must serve as his central symbol sets the stage for the story’s final scene, a dramatic march on City Hall in which black marchers incensed by Taylor’s beating are joined by a sizable contingent of white Communist marchers. United by a shared sense of injustice, the marchers confront the corrupt mayor. Wright depicts Taylor drawing strength from subsuming himself within the crowd:

Taylor looked ahead and wondered what was about to happen: he wondered without fear; as though whatever would or could happen could not hurt this many-limbed, many-legged, many-handed crowd that was he. (Richard Wright Reader 344)

In “Fire and Cloud,” Wright provides a fictional counterweight to the criticism Burke received at the Congress. Taylor’s identification of “the people” as a symbol which must be as real as God, leads directly to his rebirth as an effective leader. (Wright describes a “baptism of clean joy” which washes over Taylor as he surveys a “sea of black and white faces.”) In the early pages of the story, Taylor’s religious rhetoric is inadequate to the task at hand: it is not until he finds a Burkean vocabulary that he is able to bind his people together.

CONCLUSION: A Party of One?

At the 1935 Congress, Kenneth Burke and Richard Wright articulated positions which challenged the Party line. Implicit in their arguments was their recognition that a commitment to political agenda grounded in Marxist principles necessarily implied a critical reexamination of the relationships between composers and their communities. Burke’s “Marxoid” speech, proposing “the people” as a central symbol for Party propaganda challenged the notion that a rarefied class of writers could or should “write for the workers.” Burke argued that revolutionary writing must “invigorate audiences by incorporating sufficient aspects of cultural glorification in its material” (“Revolutionary Symbolism” 272). This necessarily obliges the revolutionary writer, whatever his class, to “take an interest in as many imaginative, aesthetic, and speculative fields as he can handle” in order to effectively critique “oppressive institutions” (“Revolutionary Symbolism” 270). Burke’s speech does not congratulate the gathered writers for having momentarily abandoned their garrets, nor does he praise them for their willingness to channel their intellectual energies on behalf of the proletariat. Instead, Burke calls upon writers to become symbolic actors, participating as fully as possible in as much of the cultural milieu as they can handle. Within the speech, Burke reduces his argument to the following formula: “Let one encompass as many desirable features of our cultural heritage as possible, and let him make sure that his political alignment features prominently among them.” (“Revolutionary Symbolism” 271). Richard Wright’s speech at the close of the Congress point up the degree to which the Congress failed to live up to this standard. In establishing the League of American Writers and eliminating the John Reed Clubs, the Communist Party was foreclosing the path by which he and other proletarian writers had first participated in the broader cultural milieu.

In the years following the Congress, Wright gradually pulled away from the Communist Party. Wright’s departure is directly attributable to the Party’s failure to commit itself to a program which would create spaces for writers sharing Wright’s proletarian background to develop and participate in meaningful symbolic action. In a 1938 radio broadcast, Wright directly addressed the sense of isolation which was endemic to the writers of his time:

[M]any young writers today, writers whom I know, poets and novelists of talent, find it impossible to identify themselves wholeheartedly with their times. This lack of confidence, this gnawing doubt, manifests itself in the writers by their retreating from the world in which they live and spinning webs of obtuse theories to justify that retreat. They cultivate themselves in isolation and call it culture. (Kinnamon and Fabre 12)

Wright’s language very nearly paraphrases the language of Granville Hicks’ call. Three years after the Congress, Wright testifies that many writers still “live virtually in isolation”—but this is an isolation made all the more troubling by the Communist Party’s failure to articulate a viable alternative to the solitary, originary and proprietary authorship which is produced by the bourgeois market. Ultimately, this failure drove Wright not only from the Party, but from the socially-oriented mode of composition which characterized his early work. The Wright who did not wish to “make individual war or individual peace” was eventually supplanted by a Wright who saw no other alternative. In a 1949 interview conducted from Wright’s new home in Paris, Wright suggests that Wright had determined that the American system of rugged individualism was not individual enough for his tastes:

America demands the abdication of the personality in favor of its conventions. Besides, all the political parties stand for a discipline which also sacrifices the man to ideological coercion. I agree with Sartre, who thinks that the individual can do something by himself. (qtd. in Kinnamon and Fabre 132)

Wright’s insistence upon authorial autonomy recurs throughout his career. Indeed, Addison Gayle identifies Wright’s “hard-fought-for and valued individuality” as a continual source of friction in Wright’s interactions with the Communist Party (92). But Wright’s eventual championing of autonomous authorship is best understood in the wake of the 1935 Congress, wherein Wright spoke eloquently of the tragic consequences of the writer’s isolation, only to find himself alone in his support of the John Reed Clubs.

While Wright began the 1950s having reverted to an individualistic mode of authorship, Burke was in the process of articulating a rhetorical theory adequate to the task of balancing the composer’s desire for autonomy with the need to arouse and fulfill the desires of particular audiences. In his 1950 book, A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke sets the stage for his most definitive discussion of “identification”—the means by which autonomous individuals establish consubstantiality, or the recognition of shared “sensations, concepts, images, ideas, [and] attitudes”—by rehearsing the shifts in Western understandings of “property.” Burke’s reading rejects the excessively materialistic reading of property which he ascribes to Coleridge’s workings of “Imagination.” Burke then suggests that Marxism provides tremendous insight into the the formation of identities “in terms of property” (24). Burke often describes rhetoric as arising from the intersections between individuals and property relations. In a key passage, Burke suggests that effective rhetoric draws not only on the rhetorician’s skill, but on a social circumstance marked by property relations:

[O]ften we must think of rhetoric not in terms of some particular address, but as a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill.

If you would praise God, and in terms that happen to sanction one system of material property rather than another, you have forced Rhetorical considerations upon us. (26)

Burke’s rhetoric, having identification as its key term, and drawing upon the complex network of property relations surrounding each individual agent, leads him to redefine “autonomy” as a specialized type of activity occurring within a larger social framework. Burke writes:

The human agent qua human agent, is not motivated solely by the principles of a specialized activity, however strongly this specialized power, in its suggestive role as imagery, may affect his character. Any specialized activity participates in a larger unit of action. “Identification” is a word for the autonomous activity’s place in this wider context, a place with which the agent may be unconcerned. The shepherd qua shepherd acts for the good of the sheep, to protect them from discomfiture and harm. But he may be “identified” with a project that is raising the sheep for the market. (27)

In Burke’s framework, fully autonomous authorship is an impossibility. A simple shift in perspective reveals the wider context, the “larger unit of action” in which the “autonomous” author’s activities transpire. Thus autonomy is merely a perception of individuality which transpires against a backdrop of larger social and cultural forces. In his rigorous insistence upon viewing the autonomous agent in terms of his larger social context, or, perhaps, his episteme, Burke is anticipating the terms of the Continental critique of authorship inaugurated by Roland Barthes and epitomized by Michél Foucault at the end of the 1960s.

For Richard Wright, the isolation he experienced during the 1935 Congress set the tone for his eventual separation from the Party and his departure from the United States. Frustrated by the Communist Party’s evident inability to accommodate writing from workers even as it professed to “write for the workers,” Wright retreated to the autonomous authorship of his youth, and defended this retreat as the only real option for a true artist. For Kenneth Burke, the isolation he experienced in the wake of his speech appears to have prompted not a retreat but a great leap forward. Burke spent the remainder of his career articulating a rhetorical theory in which socially situated rhetoricians engage their audiences by means of identification. And this identification, as Burke tells us, is “got by property” (A Rhetoric of Motives 45). Burke’s “Marxoid” rhetorical theory takes up the challenge that the Marxists at the 1935 Congress were unable to meet: he develops a theoretical framework which situates composers within their social circumstances, fully acknowledging the impact of property relations on those circumstances, without allowing those circumstances to foreclose the possibility of meaningful symbolic action by any given agent. While by 1950, Burke had superficially established himself as the sole member of what Lentricchia terms his “party of one,” Burke’s rhetorical theory, which resituates authorial autonomy within a larger social landscape of political and cultural forces, suggests that, despite Lentricchia’s complaint, Burke’s American (“self-reliant”) Marxism might not be so absurd after all.

Note from the Author: The general arc of my arguments here leaves me with a special obligation to express my gratitude for the supportive and constructive critiques offered by my anonymous reviewers. Also, an early and significantly different draft of this article was published as a chapter of my dissertation, “The Author(‘s) Proper(ty): Rhetoric, Literature, and Constructions of Authorship,” directed by Don Bialostosky. Jack Selzer was particularly helpful in developing these ideas at that stage, and I thank him for his help.


John Logie is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota

1 The 1945 edition of Black Boy represents little more than half of Wright’s original manuscript, which consisted of two parts, entitled “Southern Night” and “The Horror and the Glory.” The latter half of the manuscript (“The Horror...”) was almost certainly considered too direct in its critique of contemporary America. The remaining portion was eventually published in 1977 as a free-standing volume entitled American Hunger. Happily, the current standard edition, published by HarperPerennial under the Library of America imprint restores the text, presenting Black Boy as Wright intended it to be read. All citations to Black Boy are to this edition unless otherwise noted.

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