I’ve read a lot of Kenneth Burke and I really haven’t been a fan, although I used him a lot while teaching rhetorical analysis. His literary criticism always rubs me the wrong way and seems simplistic. Nonetheless, I keep getting sucked back into him.
I remember an old advisor frequently dismissed him claiming that though his frameworks were interesting they were far too vague and subject to interpretation to be useful in any concrete way.
My current theory is that perhaps its because I’ve primarily focused on the later Burke (Rhetoric of Motives, Grammar of Motives, Language as Symbolic Action, etc.) that I’ve missed the magic of his attempting to solve important problems in their seminal phase, reading to somewhat stuffy ossified versions instead. I think I should go back to the drawing board and start with Counter-Statement, his 1931 opening salvo.
This is Burke at his “loosest” I’m told, which is exactly what my advisor hated, but I’m thinking that it might be more useful to me than his more direct applications of “methods” to literature and life.
In the preface to the first edition, Burke asserts that the title is not meant to be argumentative, as in being counter to an orthodoxy. Because orthodoxies and heresies are always changing places and his book is counter to “principles flourishing and triumphant today” counter-statement is used just to represent it as a minority view. He differentiates between pamphleteering and inquiry, suggesting that the book is apt to display “indeterminate wavering” between these poles and not exclusively either(vii). Pamphleteering is compared to gluttony, and inquiry with sober eating. This wavering, he feels undermines the effectiveness of pamphleteering, but in any case such campaigns are weak compared to the threat of physical harm. Coming, as it does, in the midst of a great depression (1931) during the long wind-up to WWII, this admission is sound.
Though he disclaims any attempt at refutation or argument, he also is quick to admit hostility toward everything except art. I suppose the trouble for me begins there. What definition of art is he using? Art, for Burke, “is naturally antinomian,” composed of “discordant voices arising out of many systems” (viii). The program for the structure of the book begins, then, with a defense of art against its detractors. It is an inquiry into the practical results of an embracing of an aesthetic that accepts “art” under his definition, discussing its appeal and giving a vocabulary for their discussion as opposed to what he terms “the vices, but also the virtues, of journalism” (x). Art is not life, and Burke is quick to declare the superiority of “life” to art. Literature and art is a type of “value added”— “the little white houses in a valley that was once a wilderness” (x).
The basic structure of the book is described as a series of essays, with two being “interpretive rather than informative”, two that follow being “songful” treatments of the central issues, one considering doctrines regarding the utility of art, and finally a “set-piece” which is meant as a machine for criticism (Lexicon Rhetoricae).
The preface to the second edition (1952) positions this work in relation to Burke’s career arc, offering the unusual perspective that the entire work can be summed up by the first word (perhaps), the last word (norm) and a sentence on page 124 giving a cursory description of his theory of form. The search, inevitably in Burke’s project, is for a “dialectic of many voices” (xi). The relationship of art and society can be described as either one of censorship and totalitarianism, which Burke models on Plato’s republic (where art is used to amplify the desires of the regime) and art as a homeopathic to the ills to society, such as the view Aristotle where art is used as a cathartic. For Burke, art is an exemplar of many voices. Because of its irreducibility and curative properties, art is a primary focus.
Art and rhetoric fall into the class of “powers” which Burke seems to class with technology, and he rehearses a timely and well-placed skepticism. The totalitarian view of art evokes fear, the same sort of fear that he wants to associate with applied science.
The sort of fear I had in mind, for example, concerned the attitude towards the promises of “applied science” More and more people, in recent years, are coming to realize that technology can be as ominous as it is promising. Such fear, if properly rationalized, is but the kind of discretion a society should have with regard to all new powers. (xii)
What seems more telling is his description of the cultural conditions that lead him to critique Spengler, a condition of fear he compares to his reaction to the play R.U.R. Spengler was an orthodox figure of the time of the books composition, who suggested that all civilizations are destined to fail and R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) narrates an anxiety about technology and its oppression of workers. In a sense, Burke seems pro-techne, with his desire to architect a “machine for criticism,” but his point of departure is anxiety over the durability of civilization and the role of technology.
As is typical, Burke disclaims his early work by saying he would have softened it somewhat, by retaining the ideas but softening the attitudes. The 1952 Burke has come to feel that “any reduction of social motives to terms of of sheer ‘nature'” is a major error, as “naturalism has served as deceptively in the modern world as supernaturalism ever did in the past” (xv). This seems particularly well placed, as he continues asserting that naturalism “borrows its persuasiveness from the prestige of the natural sciences and their pragmatic sanction” (xv). While he does not attribute the “pragmatic sanction” to the success of technology in the mid 20th century, he well could have. His desire to avoid casting too broad a net seems clear in his summation to the revised preface. He suggest reading it as a literary work, and draws from Shakespeare the suggestion that: “By adding one thing to my purpose, nothing.” (xv)
The tensions present when the book was first published in 1931 are still present in 1952, and it’s easy to make the claim again in 2013.
Aside: The challenge I face in reading this book (I’ve been reading the prefaces for about two weeks) is keeping my eyes from glazing over across the voluminous literary criticism of French authors that I have not read and have no interest in. I can’t keep procrastinating by reading the prefaces, which I find fascinating.