Kenneth Burke’s Late Theory of History: The Personalistic and Instrumentalist Principles

Michael Feehan

In his last published article, “In Haste,” Kenneth Burke outlined a new theory of history, a dialectical approach based on the two principles he had developed in the “Afterwords” to the third editions of Permanence and Change [PC] and Attitudes Toward History [ATH]: the personalistic principle and the instrumentalist principle. These two new principles were developed through the four loci of motives that Burke had created in the two “Afterwords” and which he sloganized as “Bodies That Learn Language.” The two principles differ from other similar principles dealing with intersecting developments between persons and technologies in that Burke’s principles arise through his theory of symbolic action, depending on his unique distinction between (non-symbolic)motion and (symbolic)action. Burke’s two principles are assisted by three laws: the law of accountancy, the law of the acceleration of history, and Burke’s specialized law of unintended by-products, a two-phase law, one personal, one instrumental.

“In Haste” describes the source and design of the two principles and provides a series of examples for the operational program for the new theory of history, a theory Burke, sloganized as “The Two Roads to Rome,” announcing his admitted bias toward Western civilization. “I am asking them all [co-hagglers] to be asking themselves and one another just what does it all mean to be the kind of animal whose Western culture became polarized about the shifting relationship between the two roads to and from Rome, the Empire and the Holy See (ideally differentiated in these pages as instrumental power and personal vision, but confused like all else in this actually imperfect world of possibly accurate verbal distinctions)” (“In Haste,” 369).

Burke’s theory of history developed through the writing of three essays: an “Afterword” for the third edition of his book, Permanence and Change (PC), an “Afterword” for the third edition of his book, Attitudes Toward History (ATH), and a follow-up essay, “In Haste.” The two “Afterwords” provided Burke with the opportunity to look back from the perspective of the 1980s toward his work of the 1930s, a retrospective that produced an overview through which Burke arrived at the personalistic and the instrumentalist principles and which lead to Burke’s asking about Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History, “But what of HISTORY?” (ATH, 416).

Burke acknowledged that he had not looked carefully at the question of history until he wrote the “Introduction” to the second edition of ATH in 1953, nearly twenty years after he had originally written the book. This odd oversight arose from Burke’s 1930s focus on the concepts that make possible the study of history rather than on historical change in itself. The titular terms for PC, “permanence” and “change,” name the essential, nonchanging dialectical pair for the study of history; the key concept developed in PC, “Orientation,” concerns the ways in which people are situated with respect to their surroundings, again — a nonchanging concept. In ATH, Burke’s emphasis is on “attitudes,” the cultural equipment, the habitual patterns of conduct, that cultures infuse into their citizens — a nonchanging concept. He argues for a continuum of attitudes, from acceptance to rejection, through infinite maybes, a continuum that itself exists outside history. Although ATH recites an outline of Western history as a five-act play, it is difficult to take that recitation with much seriousness. Moreover, the outline does not provide us with a definition of history or a method for analyzing historical change.

In the 1953 “Introduction” to the second edition of ATH, Burke defined history as “life in political situations” (ATH, n.p.). He revised this definition in the 1984 “Afterword” to ATH as “life in socio-political situations” (416). Burke’s new approach arose directly from the revised orientation of the dramatistic brand of logology that Burke outlined under the slogan “Bodies That Learn Language.” That slogan opened a discussion of issues that look, at first glance, to be merely restatements of concepts Burke had proposed throughout his writing career, but which actually provides a way of viewing significant changes in Burke’s thinking between the 1930s and the 1980s. The new dispensation presents four loci of motives, four factors of equal power in impelling human conduct: “First, there is the locus of motives associated with our nature as physiological organisms. Second, there is the realm of motives peculiar to symbolism in its own right. Third, there are ‘magical’ or ‘mythic’ aspects of language, owing to the fact that it has to be learned in a period of infancy . . . A fourth locus of motives is implicit in the formula, since language stimulates the kind of attention and communication that makes possible the gradual accumulation and distribution of instrumental devices” (PC 295–96). Body, symbol, and the intersections of body and symbol had been the staples of the action-motion distinction. Now, Burke’s decades-long concerns about Ecology are promoted to the rank of fourth impelling force in human conduct. In this new formulation we have three revisions that signal significant shifts in emphasis” (1) We are organisms, rather than “animals”; (2) Learning a first language involves us all in “magical” and “mythic” thinking; (3) Counter-Nature has become part of us, as much constitutional of persons as body, symbol, and the socio-political realm linking the two. Referring to us as organisms highlights our lives in the environment, linking the fragility of climate with the inherent fragility of our selves. Focusing on symbols as coming to us before we have the ability the distinguish “real” from “fictional” attunes us to the traces of so-called “primitive” mentalities in our supposedly “civilized” ways of thinking. Placing Counter-Nature as a fourth motive of humans raises Ecology to the rank of direct contributor to human nature, equal in status, and therefore equal in power, with body, symbol, and bodies-suffused-with symbols.

This revised definition focuses studies of historical change not merely on struggles for power, but on the full range of changing values and social interactions in a given community. Burke’s vision of the power and importance of the theory of history, his new approach to the motive power of Counter-Nature in human nature, takes on a new urgency in the closing passage of the “Afterword” to PC:

The two principles operationalize two eschatologies, one arising from each principle, the personalistic driving from myth to the supernatural, the instrumentalist driving from technological innovation to technological domination, what Burke calls “Counter-Nature.”

The Story that now takes shape more and more urgently among us involves the gargoyles, the grotesquenesses, of the perspectives forced upon us by the incongruities of the relationships between the two “eschatologies” (supernatural and counter-natural) that arise from the juxtaposition of the personalistic and instrumentalist “fulfillments” resulting from humankind’s peculiar prowess with the resources of “symbolicity” (PC, 332).

Burke sees the essential project arising from the two principles as a continuous analysis of the dialectical interactions between the principles.

The unending assignment will be to consider in detail the range of transformations (with corresponding transvaluations) involved in the turn from an “early” mythic orientation (that personifies the future envisioned supernaturally) to our “perfect” secular fulfillment in the empirical realm of symbol-guided Technology’s Counter-Nature, as the human race “progressively” (impulsively and/or compulsively) strives toward imposing its self- portraiture (with corresponding vexations) upon the realm of non-human Nature. (PC, 336).

The “Afterwords” to PC and ATH generate a new perspective on history and a new challenge for further study.

In the follow-up article, “In Haste,” Burke takes this challenge beyond the retrospective reassessments of the “Afterwords” to outline the historical developments generated by the interactions between the personalistic and instrumentalist principles, though Burke’s writing in haste precluded a formalization of the new program. In working through those interactions, Burke adds three “laws” to the program of analysis: the law of accountancy, Henry Adams’ law of the acceleration of history, and Burke’s unique version of the law of unintended consequences.

Burke’s personalistic principle develops as the combining of body and symbol into selfhood and society, linking three of the four loci of motives that Burke established in his “Bodies That Learn Language” program: the human body in itself, language in itself, and the (generative and vexed) intertwinings of body and language. Burke’s instrumentalist principle develops through the fourth of his loci: technology.

One [the personalistic principle] encompasses the vast complex of social relationships, properties, authorities that centers in the principle of personality. The other [the instrumentalist principle] starts from the kinds of transformations in conditions of living (  from a primitive state of nature) due to the technological development of   instruments” (“In Haste,” 378).

Persons and technologies form the two poles from which change begins, and toward which change is driven.

On one side there could be the elaboration of personal, social relationships (as in kinship systems, for instance) that rounded out forms of governance by priestly extensions of Nature into a mythic realm of the Supernatural. And on the other side there could be the possibility of technical unfoldings, that, by accumulating innovations atop innovations, constituted a sufficient departure from the conditions of Nature as experienced by the bodies of our prehistoric ancestors to so modify the conditions of livelihood as to confront their descendants’ bodies, by comparison, with a state of Counter-Nature (PC, 309).

History “rounds out,” “unfolds,” and “accumulates innovations atop innovations.” Persons have imposed their instruments on the nonverbal world until we persons now live in a world of instruments that threaten to eliminate persons.

Burke’s theory of Counter-Nature includes a distinctive admonition: Technology cannot be wished away. “Technology can be neither criticized nor controlled nor corrected without recourse to still more Technology” (ATH, 396). Love technology, hate it, or both, a dream of technology evaporating through the ignoring of technology will do us no good. To begin the urgent project of protecting the planet from instruments and their makers, we makers of instruments must examine the ways in which technology transforms human nature as it transforms the world.

Burke speaks of “personalizing,” a process through which the boundaries between agent and agency become blurred and realigned. “I beg, at least, that you take to heart my doctrinal lines anent the thesis that our technological (instrumental) innovations become personalized — for I need that notion urgently” (“In Haste,” 358). A new ideology or technology can become an integral part of the people who use it, a process Burke believes to be familiar to everyone: “[W]e can readily recall, for instance, how the pianist, or the man with the horn make their instruments part of them” (341). Musicians, golfers, writers can feel torn apart when their preferred instrument disappears. Ideologies and technologies reach into selfhood. We become different people to the extent that a new idea or tool changes the way we engage with the world.

The view of history that emerges through Burke’s theory presents a punctuated and unpredictable process of change. We cannot know when a technological innovation will pose a challenge to the existing, dominant technology, when automobiles might replace horses, airplanes replace trains. We cannot predict when a technological innovation will have such power that it will take hold on persons, social relations, economic interactions with such force that a community’s way of life will become substantively altered. The introduction of a new ideology or technology may lead to a revolution in values. The scope of the value change will depend on the scope and depth of the values inherent in the processes necessary for the incorporation of the new technology into the received culture. We cannot know when a new ideology or technology will emerge or when or under what circumstances an innovation will survive and grow. Either the new technology will have its day then disappear or the innovation will take dominion, providing an important service and replacing the established order. Perhaps, some rhetor may devise arguments that successfully meld the innovation into the beliefs and habits of the people, creating an image of a better life through newer machines.

Burke supplements his two dialectical principles with three laws: accountancy, acceleration, and unintended by-products.


New technologies require funding, a process that involves both changing the beliefs of persons and redirecting money and credit. In outlining the personalistic and instrumentalist principles, Burke adds: “Included also is the principle of accountancy, money, which directly involves both [principles] (the one by profits and taxation, the other by its role in technology). And its great intermediary role makes it readily liable to enhancement as an end” (“In Haste,” 339). Money oscillates “midway” between the instrumentalist and personalistic principles with a tendency to become “too big to fail.”

A program of technological change must work on trust: I build a new machine, search for investors to market the thing. Before you will invest in my new machine, you must trust that my machine will not only work but will take a continuing place in society. Before potential workers will move from one employer to another, they must trust that their lives will improve if they move or that their old jobs will disappear under the weight of the new machine. Money is just that remarkable tool which — though nothing in itself — signals to all of us that some equivalency of value exists between the items being exchanged in any given transaction. We must all believe in the capabilities of the new technology, in the willingness of people to personalize the new technology, and in the infinite exchangeability of money. Money circulates through persons and instruments as the universal symbol of the creed that links us.

From the perspective of technology, money appears as “funding.” Burke says, “The incredibly vast sums paid by taxation and mounting debt to the ‘military industrial complex’ could be called a kind of ‘funding,’ which the economy under technology allocates in one way or another to many sections of itself. "(‘Much Television is in effect “funded” by the advertisers who buy time for their ‘commercials’)” (“In Haste,” 342). Money allows us to construct a new technology, to set that new technology in place, to market the new technology.

At the boundary between instrument and person, money appears as wages, profits, taxes. “These purely instrumental functions tie in with the personal not only as regards wages, ‘honorariuma,’ awards, dividends, royalties, interest on bank deposits, profits on investments, etc., but also as regards costs, taxes, fines, penalties, etc. Even the Church, which rationalizes human conduct on the basis of Supernatural authority, must as a worldly institution get involved in financial matters” (“In Haste,” 342). (The Church links sin and tithe.) Money moves between technologies and persons, connecting them, driving them. Money is useful to history precisely because money is not representative of human motives, the purest cypher. The dollar bill in your pocket might have been previously used to help fund the construction of some new technology, perhaps a new technology you abhor, or that same bill might have been used to pay someone to work with the older technology, or both. Money tells us nothing about its previous uses, carries no identifications. Money signals value in and of itself, without reference to interests, pieties or tribal associations.

Accountancy will change its focus across the lifetime of a given technological ascendency: First, arguing for the shifting of funds from the obsolete regime toward the new, then, arguing for continued funding to expand, support, and sustain the newly established regime, then arguing that funding should not be shifted to an even newer, untried, dangerous, revolutionary technology.


Burke heartily adopts Henry Adams’ “law of the acceleration of history.” Not only does Burke reiterate his long-standing agreement with Adams’ idea that the rate of change itself has continuously increased in Western culture since the Renaissance (“In Haste,” 345), he argues that the rate of change has increased even faster over the decades since the early years of the Twentieth century. Referring to his own early story, “The White Oxen” Burke says : “But the realm of innovations and corresponding discriminations that we call technology has expanded so greatly since the night sky of Millvale and Etna that Matthew saw, surely even Henry Adams with his ‘law of the acceleration of history’ (and he died about the same year as when Matthew had his ‘vision’) would be astounded to see the increasing rate of acceleration that the ‘instrumentalist’ principle has evinced since then” (“In Haste,” 355). Burke grew up in a world full of the smells and noise and muscularity of horses, a world newly invaded by automobiles, with electricity just beginning to blot out the night sky, with airplanes no more than glorified kites, with rocket ships and moon walks the silly dreams of children, a world without refrigerators. (Burke produced “In Haste” on a machine called a “typewriter” — dominant in commerce and government for a hundred years, gone in twenty.)

Unintended By-Products

Once an innovation has been adequately funded, its value credited and general operations commenced, unintended by-products emerge. For Burke, two particular sorts of unintended by-products are inherent functions of historical change: (1) Under the personalistic principle, Burke sees “priesthoods,” people devoted to propagating the new technology; (2) Under the instrumentalist principle, Burke sees the intrinsic nature of the innovation making specific demands for maintaining and sustaining itself, including the creation of unexpected ancillary technologies. Priesthoods will change focus over time: emerging as prophetic jeremiad, decrying present decay and declaring the wonders of a new dispensation, later celebrating the success of the true calling, continuously re-calling the propriety of this ascendency; finally, outraged at the apostacy of so many of the faithful in the face of heresy caused by a new, untried, unpatriotic technology.

(1) Burke argues that each technological innovation gives rise to a bureaucracy that exists only so long as the innovation survives, a relation Burke calls “the bureaucratization of the imaginative.” “The term is applied to many kinds of confused developments, some quite locally personal in the range of their attitudinizing. But constantly recurring are the Stories whereby the instrumentalist genius of Technology (interwoven with capitalist aspects of the case) is equated with the kind of unfolding and corresponding human relationships that I subsumed in the attitudinal perspective of my wanly comic term ‘bureaucratization’” (ATH, 381). When an innovation carves out a place for its functionings and begins to make its demands for sustenance and maintenance (with an implicit dream of hegemony), people begin working to ensure the survival of the innovation. The people are urged to recognize that their new jobs have arisen through and exist only because of the innovation. People begin to believe that continuing employment depends largely or even wholly upon sustaining and maintaining the technology that now employs them. Yet, however radical the innovation may originally have been, the people employed through that innovation will inevitably become counterrevolutionaries if they come to believe that they will prosper under the next innovation.

(2) Innovation implies environmental alteration. “‘Unintended By-Products’ arise owing to the fact that every machine or method has a nature of its own, not just the nature that it has as an instrument for the performing of any particular person’s purpose” (“In Haste,” 341). This necessary instrumentalist factor in all innovations does not depend upon any particular environmental or cultural situation. Technologies need locations, supplies (raw materials and materials already machined by allied technologies, old and new), caretakers, distributors, sales personnel (rhetors) and governmental protection. Burke wants us to recognize that the drive for technological self-protection inevitably arises with every innovation, that sustaining and maintaining the innovation plays a necessary role in history, sending shock waves through the existing environment and culture. (In the USA, you can’t implant a new technological system without plenty of parking spaces.)

Two Principles

The Personalistic Principle “encompasses the vast complex of social relationships, properties, authorities that centers in the principle of personality.”

“The elaboration of personal, social relationships (as in kinship systems, for instance) that rounded out forms of governance by priestly extensions of Nature into a mythic realm of the Supernatural.”

The Instrumentalist Principle “starts from the kinds of transformations in conditions of living (from a primitive state of nature) due to the technological development of "instruments.” ("In Haste," 378).

“The possibility of technical unfoldings, that, by accumulating innovations atop innovations, constituted a sufficient departure from the conditions of Nature as experienced by the bodies of  our prehistoric ancestors to so modify the conditions of livelihood as to confront their descendants’ bodies, by comparison, with a state of Counter-Nature.”

Three Laws

ACCOUNTANCY “The law of accountancy, money, which directly involves both [principles] (the one by profits and taxation, the other by its role in technology). And its great intermediary role makes it readily liable to enhancement as an end.”

ACCELERATION Henry Adams’ “law of the acceleration of history”: the rate of change itself has continuously increased in Western culture since the Renaissance and the rate of change has increased even faster over the decades since the early years of the Twentieth century.


(1) Under the personalistic principle, “priesthoods,” people devoted to propagating the new technology.

 (2) Under the instrumentalist principle, the intrinsic nature of an innovation making specific demands for maintaining and sustaining itself, including the creation of unexpected ancillary technologies.

The Two Roads to Rome

Burke illustrates his theory of history with a summary review of Western culture from the fall of Carthage to the Middle Ages, his two roads to Rome, the sacred/personalistic paired with the secular/ instrumental (with Burke drawing from his beloved and notorious Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica).

On the personalistic side, the side of ideology, the people of Rome had to be convinced of the value of a republican government, and, at a later time, of the value of replacing a republic with a monarchy. The people had to be convinced to pay for and to join in wars for the glory of the republic and then to change allegiance to pay for and join in wars for the glory of the Empire. Then, Constantine threw the ideology of monotheism into the mix: The people had to believe that the gods who had guided the ascent of Rome were fantasies, that the one God of the Christians should replace, displace and ultimately destroy all the previously existing gods.

On the instrumental side, Rome struggled with Carthage to control commerce. “The instrumentalist fact is that Rome and Carthage, as rivals in the technology of trade, encountered each other in the technology of war until Rome destroyed Carthage totally — AFTER WHICH CAME THE PAX ROMANA” (“In Haste,” 343). Rome rose from village to Empire through the technologies of commerce and war. Throughout that process, the reigning institutions drove social systems to contest against Carthage to gain market-share for the expansion of society, contests perfected in the destruction of Carthage, transforming market-share into monopolistic hegemony.

Then, the gatherings of Christians became “The Church” and the Church grew powerful and propertied. Once the Church had succeeded in convincing the great mass of the people to become Christians — just as the Empire was dying — the Church discovered the necessity to convince the great mass of the people that the Church had the same need for wealth, property and taxes as did the secular government.

During all this period the Christian church had been going through developments with relation to the personalistic principle, the instrumental principle, and matters of funding. The issue is complicated by the fact that a Ruler is so readily identified with his State that the results due to the activities of the personnel operating the State’s instrumentalities, including its profits, can be ascribed to the Ruler. And in the case of the funding that the Church received, it involved financial transactions that conflicted with Canon Law (“In “Haste,” 344).

The Church grew in wealth and power just as the Empire began to atrophy. The Church became inextricably caught up in the fate of the secular world. Instrument, person and funding interacted to set the Church in secular ascendancy even over the Emperor. Burke goes on to point out one of the epochal unintended by-products of this interaction among person, instrument and money, with money as the driving force for ideological revolution: Martin Luther’s eruptions over the selling of indulgences — the pricing, and discount pricing, of salvation – initiating a hundred years of war and the creation of hundreds of new (renewed) versions of THE CHURCH (see “In Haste,” 345).

Burke discusses the merger of instrument and person in the rise of the guilds as another arena of interaction of persons, tools and money, the guilds forming to protect the members’ incomes and developing into quasi-religious programs for identifying friends and guarding against enemies. As he typed in-haste, Burke noticed on TV the ironic funding campaigns for renovating the Statute of Liberty, “both its repair and her emblematic character as she towered there when the job was finished” (“In Haste,” 358).

Burke’s most extensive discussion of personalizing appears in his survey of the development of vassalage during the Middle Ages. In vassalage, the categories of person and instrument merge and diverge across several hundred years of imperial and national rises and falls. The contraction of the Roman Empire led to ever increasing rates of taxation for the lands still controlled by the peers of the Empire. As the tenants increasingly fell short on tax payments, they began to sell their services to the landlords, a process which eventually evolved into vassalage. “The principle of instrumentation was implicit in the institution of vassalage since even many of the services that the tenant performed for the landowner (such as corvee, work on the upkeep of roads) amounted to profits for the economy as a whole though no money was involved. Thus to a large extent, the ways of instrumentation are to be located in terms of the personal suzerain-vassal relationship” (“In Haste,” 346). With vassalage, persons became instruments through a subtler rhetoric than that needed for creating slavery.

With vassalage, the people choose to become instruments of the landlord. With slavery, the victims become instruments by force. With vassalage, the people agree to become vassals when they come to believe that some good will arise from the process: I may give up some of my free time to work on the landlord’s roads and buildings, but I will keep my own land and my home, and my family will remain intact. With slavery, the slave has no choice, becomes utterly instrumental, retains no more than nominal personhood.

With vassalage, a rhetoric must be devised to convince the people that the goods arising from vassalage outweigh the narrowing of citizenship, the limitations on civil rights (money trumps decency). A comparable rhetoric must convince the landlords that vassalage promises better profits at lower costs than would arise through the outright seizure of delinquent properties. When slavery first enters a culture, a rhetoric must be designed to convince the “citizens,” that slavery will not injure the existing economy, will not reduce the availability of jobs, will not depress wages, will not make the slave-owners vicious.

Burke provides an autobiographical example of personalizing as recorded in his poem “Tossing on Floodtides of Sinkership: A Diaristic Fragment” (Collected Poems 277–93, at 282). Burke recounts driving across the country, from New Jersey to the Pacific and back. He asks, “How walk faster, except by working harder,” and answers with the automobile and its wild disproportion between effort and effect: “Ever so lightly press the pedal down a fraction farther/And your massive technologic demon/spurts forward like a fiend.” A tiny effort of the body causes a massive physical transformation: The force of gravity is increased; my body sinks into the seat and in the same instant, car and body roar to a speed rarely experienced before the Twentieth century — perhaps only by people falling off cliffs or into volcanoes. Then, how easily this experience becomes part of myself. Racers using automobiles say, “I won,” as though the force of the racing had come through the racer’s body, as though the setting of one’s foot on an accelerator exhibited the same heroic qualities we ascribe to a runner who actually puts one foot in front of the other. Burke declaims, “‘Might we not here, my friends, / confront the makings of a madness, / an unacknowledged leap/ from This is mine/ to By God, this is ME! . . . ?’“ (quoted in “In Haste, 356–57).

In effect, Burke has provided us with a checklist for designing a comprehensive analysis of the ways in which persons and technologies interact to alter the nonverbal and verbal worlds. A complete analysis would look at both existing technologies and emergent technologies, examining each through the two key principles and the three associated laws.

Personalizing: Existing Technologies

Looking at the personalistic principle for existing technological regimes, the analyst would look at operators, funders and priests. And, of course, the analyst would look to see whether any of those persons performed more than one of the essential roles. The rhetorical issue would consider both the arguments accepted by and employed by the participants in sustaining and maintaining the existing technology and the arguments rejected by the participants for limiting or replacing the existing technology. The ethical issue would consider the values that the participants espoused before the existing regime took power and any changes in the old values that have arisen through the process of establishing the existing regime. In particular, the analyst would look for the signs or vestments of authority, the patterns of conduct and the associated raiment, adornments, and pennants adopted by the participants.

Personalizing: Emerging Technologies

For emergent technologies, the analyst would look for persons who argue for the imposition of a new regime and for persons who propose to fund the new regime, with an expectation of dual roles. (A priesthood would emerge later if the proposed instruments were to take hold.) The rhetorical issue would concern the importance of supplementing or replacing the existing technology, while the ethical issue would concern the values implicit in the retention and maintenance of the existing technology, its inherent demands for self-defense regardless of its impacts on the people who serve the technology, and the role of the technology with regard to Counter-Nature.


For technological analysis of existing technologies, the analyst would begin by looking at the ecological and commercial impact of those technologies, both positive and negative, with a view toward the ecological need for redesign or replacement. For emerging technologies, the analyst would look to the environment and commercial changes, both positive and negative, that would necessarily accompany the new regime, both as to the new technology’s own impact and the impact of remediating or replacing the existing regime.

The rhetorical issue would concern the potential improvements in relevant environments that the emerging technology could provide through remediation or replacement of the existing regime. The ethical issue would concern changes in the quality of life that could arise through the introduction and promotion of the emerging technology.


Accountancy would look at the kinds of and scale of funding needed for the emerging technology and at the weakening of funding for existing technologies. The rhetorical issue would focus on arguments for shifting of funds from the old to the new, the effect on persons and instruments of instituting new types and lines of funding (both for the technologies themselves and for the persons who would work for and in association with the new instruments). The ethical issue would consider the ways in which funding (money and credit) for the existing technology would change people’s views both with regard to prevailing distributions of money and with regard to the established technology and the systems of money and credit the community had become accustomed to.


The law of the acceleration of history would direct analysts to look first at the ways in which the existing technology and its associated technologies have moved across the community in ways and at speeds that had not been anticipated when the newly prevailing technology had been adopted. Then, the analyst would attempt to extrapolate the likely accelerations that would inevitably accompany adoption of the new technology, with a view to planning for eventual remediation or replacement of what now emerges. Or the analyst might look to see whether ongoing accelerations of change might begin to slow under a new technological regime.

Unintended By-Products

The analyst would look to the inevitable emergence of a priesthood of the new technology and the emergence of unexpected positive and negative impacts of the new technology as it drives toward cultural dominance.

Priesthood. The priesthood would, by definition, work both to denigrate the outgoing technology and to prevent the presently emerging technology from being replaced by a later-developed technology, propounding a rhetoric extolling the values of both the technology itself and the kinds of personal traits made possible by (required for) the technology.

Ancillary instrumentation. The technology would, of necessity, require ancillary technologies to support and protect the technology and those ancillary technologies would necessarily spawn their own ancillary supporters and protectors, both personal and technological.

* * *

Much of what Burke asks us to look for already exists in various texts. For instance, Burke’s concerns for shifts between the personalistic and technological principles have appeared in other places, as in Raymond Williams’ studies of word change, as in Culture and Society, 1780–1950.

Industry, before this period [1780], was a name for a particular human attribute, which could be paraphrased as “skill, assiduity, perseverance, diligence.” This use of industry of course survives. But, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, industry came also to mean something else; it became a collective word for our manufacturing and productive institutions, and for their general activities (xi).

Williams expressly sees a shift in the use of a common, everyday word from a focus on persons to a focus on technologies. The changes in words mirror the change from artisanal excellence to industrial mass production that characterized the Industrial Revolution. The “Men of Industry” such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller did not work with steel or oil, though they were “industrious”; they moved money.

Burke asks us to take this line of thinking farther, to show that the transformation from a post-feudal, rural culture to an industrialized economy involved a new definition of work, lionized as “the division of labor,” that the design created a need for a new conception of self, the invention of single, separate, unitary, permanent self. Where the enemies of the new regime called for the workers of the world to unite, the priests of the new regime called for “the Individual”: You should not identify yourself with your activities; your true nature resides wholly within you and is definable wholly within you; you can be anyone you choose to be (though we will be actively preventing you from becoming anything other than a worker).

Bourgeois naturalism . . . [believed] an individual’s “identity” is something private, peculiar to himself. And when bourgeois psychologists began to discover the falsity of notion, they still believed in it so thoroughly that they considered all collective aspects of identity under the head of pathology and illusion. That is: they discovered accurately enough that identity is not individual, that a man “identifies himself” with all sorts of manifestations beyond himself, and they set about trying to “cure” him of this tendency (ATH 263).

Self transcends family, tribe, community, nation; duty and responsibility are reflexive values, the measures of how well you treat yourself. Now, we deflect interconnections among selves in favor of efficiency and profit. We prevent young people from inappropriate identifications through education into the values of the new regime. [This perspective achieves its apotheosis in Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right. (see Miller 161–169)]. We worry that social media will damage our children’s abilities to use and comprehend extended discourse, is transforming the concept of “privacy.”

As he worked through the implications of his new slogan, “Bodies That Learn Language,” Burke began to see that his promotion of Counter-Nature from a scenic background or frame to an inherent and equal partner [with body, symbol, and society] in human motivation, requires us to re-view history through the lens of the relationships between selfhood and tools. Our instruments and their insignia of rank have always created in each of us the progression of (the unacknowledged leap from) possession to personality, from mine to Me.

Later, in correspondence, Burke outlined the path by which his new theory of history can operate as a new hermeneutics: Burke argued that we should look back through the examination of the U.S. Constitution that he had presented nearly a half century earlier in A Grammar of Motives. We should look to see how the personalistic and instrumentalist principles acting together create a method for seeing the Constitution as two Constitutions. “I take it that the twists of identification there [ “In Haste,” p.359] were quite close to my realizing that our one document sets up the conditions for 2 Constitutions, the political and the technological. /Try tentatively seeing how things work out if you look for a ‘dualistic theory of our Constitution’s language’” (Letter). In establishing a new nation, we not only created the conditions for recognizing persons as “We, the people,” but also the conditions for devising the institutions necessary for sustaining those new kinds of persons (see Wess, 251–253). Burke wants us to see that Counter-Nature has always been part of being human and of interacting with and as humans. Now that Counter-Nature threatens global self-destruction, we must look back through all our stories about human “progress” to see the waves of historical mythologies that facilitated millennia of species-wide self-deceptions about the power of Counter-Nature to constrain and control our assaults on the world beyond symbols.

Works Cited

Kenneth Burke. Permanence and Change, 3rd ed. U California P, 1984.

—. Attitudes Toward History, 3rd ed. U California P, 1984.

—. Collected Poems, 1915–1967. U California P, 1968.

—. “In Haste.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, vol. 6, no. 3–4, 1985, pp. 329–77.

—. Letter. April 13, 1989.

Miller, Steven B. Modernity and Its Discontents: Making and Unmaking the Bourgeois from Machiavelli to Bellow. Yale UP, 2016.

Wess, Robert. Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism. Cambridge UP, 1996.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780–1950. Harper and Row, 1958.

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