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

Ian Hill, University of Illinois


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rotten with Perfection: Terminologies and Technologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confronting the Instrumental ‘Bulldozer Mentality’ and its Terministic Screens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rhetorical Purpose: Logological Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Burke’s Rhetorical Philosophy of Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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