Toward Understanding the Pathology of B(urkeian) O(ccupational) P(sychosis) (also known as Goad Roper’s Disease)

W. Lance Haynes

Presented at the National Communication Association Conference
Chicago, November 1999

Occupational psychoses are the result of trained incapacities related to one’s vocational pursuits or life’s work. Just as a hungry chicken, trained to come for food at the sound of a bell, may rush with equal passion to become Sunday dinner, those whose wont is to share critical understanding with others, when schooled in the thought of Kenneth Burke, risk harm’s way.

One exceptionally painful symptom of the Burkeian Occupational Psychosis (hereinafter referred to as BOP) is the tendency to conclude critical essays by exhorting one’s readers to undertake this course or that practice in yet one more futile attempt to take seriously that which, in the final analysis, simply isn’t--i.e.: broadly, the plight of Homo Symbolificus, and, specifically, the plight of those who would try to help everyone else understand the plight of Homo Symbolificus. I make this observation in the spirit of this open and free discussion, and I mean it sincerely as a goad to perfection. I offer the following observations (and no exhortations) concerning BOP:

In BOP, one is incapacitated by being denied the joy of passionate commitment to any mere system of beliefs--this through glimmers of understanding that such systems, being limited by the language of their expression, will never be fully encompassing. This incapacitation is intensified through denial of the ecstasies and comforts of religious dogma by virtue of occasionally recognizing how all religious stories are but variations on one inevitable story, all dogmas but variations on the dogma of perfection implicit in symbolic expression. What is more, one is still further incapacitated by being denied the hope of fulfilment that would come if only perfection of any kind could be achieved, by virtue of the nagging certainty that perfection is but a concept-in-vain. Were we not, as children, admonished by our parents: “Thou shalt not take the name of thy Lord God in vain?” And yet , how else can the Logos be taken?

We revel in the hymn of the Dialectician (1):

Hail to Thee, Logos,
Thou Vast Almighty Title,
In Whose name we conjure--
Our acts the partial representatives
Of Thy whole act...

And later

Let the Word be dialectic with the Way--
Whichever the print
The other the imprint,

and finally:

For us
Thy name a Great Synecdoche,
Thy works a Grand Tautology.

Jehovah and Baal in one mighty All! And as if that wasn’t quite enough, our trained incapacity leads us to face the inevitable certainty that language implicitly places events into variations on the same plot over and over again forever, on and on up the topless ladder, blame it on them, blame it on us, it’s your fault, No, it’s MINE!

Our trained incapacity leads us to recognize that struggling for a fulcrum with which to ply the lever of truth is, of course, a fool’s errand. It is exactly as Burke notes of US territorial expansion, “Quite often a treaty that was made in good faith was broken for the simple reason that, even in the Capital, there was no one fixed authority to which such matters could be referred. The authoritative function did not reside in any personal office; it was in the pressure of the new technology and the waves of new settlers or promoters that came with it.” (2) Recognizing, as we do, the nomadic residence of authoritative function, leads us face to face with the paradox of absolutely denying absolute truth; but, as with any paradox, it’s hard to keep the whole thing in mind for long.

Such perplexities! Recall the fool in As You Like It: (3)

A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ th’ forest, . . .
Who laid him down and bask’d him in the sun
and rail’d on Lady Fortune in good terms,...
“Good morrow, fool, “ quoth I. “No, sir,” quoth he
“Call me not fool till heaven hath sent me fortune.”
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock.
Thus we may see.’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags.
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one more hour ‘twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’

A tale? A drama: the dancing of attitudes embodied in the telling of a thousand and one tales. We are nought but spinners of tales, tortured by recognition that the inherent limitations in all telling resulting from the terministic screens through which our sensibilities are converted to what we see and hear and feel as action. Even in the best of times, we feel our growing detachment from nature with the irritation of jet passengers asked to close their window shades so their fellow travelers can watch the movie. In the worst of times, like Peter Pan, we seek for our shadows as if, once found, some nymphet Wendy Darling could sew them back onto our feet.

It seems we are thus moved, like Peter leading his troop of lost boys to live in Never-never-land. Burke, precursing our current state of affairs, noted in 1976:

Regardless of whether the description and diagnosis of cultural frustrations, akin to the immobilized state of Sloth, help us to develop a practical remedy, the mere contemplation of human predicaments can perform a kind of cathartic function...(in other words) the puzzles of technology’s attenuatedly pandemoniac multiplicity attain a kind of ad interim quasi-resolution via the many works devoted to the discussion of its symptoms, the multiplicity of its situations thus being matched by the multiplicity of the studies that reflect it (4).

Oh, how gratifying that ad interim quasi-resolution! Yet no matter how fantastic our piratical adventures as we contemplate our puzzling predicaments, there are those moments when some needle of truth pricks our tender soles, chills our bones, and twists our stomachs: when we understand with cold clarity that catharsis will not heal us; that we are but instruments of our instruments, and that technology is the means to our perfection--our entelechial end and our final one. We are rotten with perfection; and perfection, increasingly denuded of nature, is slowly rotting.

But perhaps to achieve rotten perfection is the ultimate (perfect) fall. Burke notes that:

Henry Adams’ ‘law of the acceleration of history,’ by which he referred to the geometrically increasing pace of technological innovation and to which he would unresistingly abandon himself since the tide of history was irresistably flowing in that direction, could do service both as a synonym for what is now usually called an ‘exponential curve’ of society’s plunge into the future and as the analogue of what the “psychology” of a falling object would be if such a thing were involved in a personal rather than a sheerly physical mode of behavior, whereby Adams’ law of history’s acceleration would be a metaphorical law of falling bodies that are temperamentally jumping to a personal fall like Matthew Arnold’s Empedocles into Etna. (5)

KB suggests that we are guardians of a powerless vision and we can only strive to keep the vision alive, casting the tragedy in comic form, plying irony, facing technoculture with logoculture, striving to prevent our denaturing, keeping us in touch with the natural world that technology, in its drive to perfect us, strains to undo.(6) It rather reminds one of the Light Brigade, charging in desperate surety that we will achieve perfection before Sevastopol in spite of overwhelming evidence that our demise is imminent. We are not, alas, most of us, as facile with the wisdom of the ages as was Kenneth Burke; thus to carry on his brave work, especially as we are faced with the growing pressure of technological change, is an awesome task.

Burke understood this notion generally: He wrote, “Consider, for instance, what comparatively little damage an individual can do who has nothing but his body with which to be violent. Then consider what havoc he can do if he has access to a plane and an atom bomb” (7).

Further, mind that Burke was very much a creature of the age of literacy and that technology is increasingly dealing those media already their mutations. In order to popularize an understanding of humankind’s plight in the face of impending, if not looming, technological perfection, our facility must be with a new generation of media that use not figures and tropes nor even reason but the direct simulation of experience itself as their rhetoric. Not symbolic action but the fashion of its presentation--the means by which to alter predispositions to respond--has, in some sense, left Burke’s home arena. Welcome to the dazed and confused world of BOP.

Bopping with the Big Boppers

For some years now, I have tried to assist students in coming to grips with their lives dramatistically by suggesting that language drives our frail egos to cast events always as tragedy or as comedy. We have thus a choice to see people as heroes and villains, or as fools and clowns, the latter pair being distinguished principally by virtue of the fact that the clowns know it. Thus I delight myself by imagining my Burkeian colleagues with bright red noses and cheeks, with bright white pancake makeup, with floppy shoes and ruffled collars much in the fashion that freshmen toastmasters may be urged to imagine their audiences in their underwear. I mean no disrespect, of course. After all, we have in mind trying to show physicists and mathematicians and industrialists and politicians how their strivings are leading the human race headlong to its own destruction. Is that not a clown’s errand?

A clown’s errand, or a jester’s or a fool’s--and here we are face to face with our own terminological dilemma, for, as Shakespeare had it: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” (8)

Recently, on Burke-L, Ed Appel, after a somewhat impassioned plea for including even the likes of Pat Buchanan in the “full dialectic,” closed his commentary: “I remain your humble servant and court jester.” (9) I was brought, rather abruptly, to the startling realization that clowns and fools both “know it.” Who would dispute Ed Appel’s BOP credentials? Even without the initials, Ed, along with such notables as Bernie Brock and Barry Brummett and Barbara Biesecker, is indisputably a Big Bopper. Sometimes they clown, sometimes they fool, sometimes their irony and subtle wit wring our intellects dry, and sometimes, as do we all, they take themselves seriously. But in Burke’s wake, these folks are Big Boppers. Must they not suffer the Burkeian Occupational Psychosis to an extreme?

And if Ed Appel chooses to style himself as a jester, a fool, or a clown, then surely the Little Boppers--we common folk who plod along the halls of academe breaking out in hoots of laughter at the most inappropriate times--can joyously follow suit. None of us are all the time transcending life’s drama--and perhaps at the other extreme, every language user may well experience some moments of lucid doubt.

Just as cops and robbers are said to have similar psychological profiles (it takes a thief to catch a thief), heroes and villains, clowns and fools, have a great deal more in common with each other than they do with the other components of the drama: the supporting cast, the extras, and the audience.

Indeed, the critic’s choice--whenever the grip of BOP is flexed-- is to be hero, villain, clown, or fool. If we seize the dialectic, if we bunk or debunk, then we are alternately the heroes and villains of the play. We ripe and ripe and rot and rot, and as we pass, glimpses of eternity and visions of gobbling our very tails between our teeth dance in our heads. We are apt to be moved to irony, yet we find that irony is insufficient--irony aches--the agony of irony comes upon us like a fit of melancholy. We can express our wry understanding that black and white are ultimately the same color, face bravely the desperation with which our egos wish otherwise, feel agony at the inevitability, but ill feeling hardly heals the patient. Irony becomes a secret code for the initiated, but is it not a code of defeat? Ironic light shines to the rear, and thus indeed the vision we guard seems powerless.

And finally, Burke credits:

the essential ‘rationality’; of our inventions” with raising “much of the trouble. For mankind is in trouble indeed when the great accomplishments of human rationality raise more problems than can go well with Whitmanlike accents of the promissory. In technology we confront an objective fulfillment, since it is so rational in its essence, yet its very rationality is but a caricature of human reasonableness. When the implementations of rationality multiply our problems, we are conflicting with rationality itself. I would call such vexations the universal puzzle with which the Dynamo [modern technology] now Bicentennially confronts us (10).

As if all this is not disheartening enough, we must acknowledge that any urge toward healing the BOP–toward solving the universal puzzle--is nothing more or less than seeking to perfect the Bopper. Indeed, nota bene, the urge to perfect is the symbolic concomitant to the process of change over time: that is, evolution. Evolution involves survival of the fittest in the face of a changing natural environment. In the case of humankind, this survival depends as much on successfully adapting symbolic exchange as it does on the physiological adaptations of other species. While Darwinian evolution gives us the means to perfect our biological match with the environment, and technological evolution offers the means to simplify and control this process by reducing the complexities of the human-environmental interface, symbolic evolution gives us the means to adjust our notions of perfection accordingly. Isn’t that a laugh? Whether we take a humanistic or a technologistic tack in this enterprise (and a new wave of technologistical critics seems not unlikely in the dialectical progression of BOP) really doesn’t promise to matter all too much: the distress and angst of BOP will continue regardless. All we can do is strive to make the patient as comfortable as possible by giving him or her control of the codeine dispenser. Inasmuch as the multiplicity of situations is itself on the exponential curve, it is perhaps prudent to facilitate the practice of roping goads: by which I mean to cultivate among Boppers an intense practice of identifying any and every turn and aspiration toward perfection, implicit or explicit, in every communication. We must take these things out and expose them everywhere they appear. Note that the point is not to debunk but to de-perfect, to turn the goad into a comical non-sequitur. This is therapy, mind; something akin to doing crossword puzzles or chanting mantras. It is indeed as Arnold’s Empedocles had it:

I say, Fear no!. Life still
Leaves human effort scope.
But, since life teems with ill,
Nurse no extravagant hope.Because thou must not dream, thou need’st not then despair. (11)


  1. Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form, (Berkeley: U. Cal. Press, 1967), 448-450.
  2. Burke, Kenneth. “Toward Looking Back,” in JGE: The Journal of General Education, 28:3 (Fall, 1976), 179.
  3. II, vii, 12-28.
  4. “Toward Looking Back”, 187.
  5. “Toward Looking Back, “ 176.
  6. Rueckert, William H. Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations, (Berkeley: U. Cal. Press) See 284-287.
  7. “Toward Looking Back, 189.
  8. As You Like It, V, 1.
  9. Appel, Ed, E-mail to Burke-L, October 13, 1999.
  10. “Toward Looking Back, “ 187.
  11. Arnold, Matthew, ”From the Hymn of Empedocles,” in The Oxford Book of English Verse,