L 23 Kenneth Burke (1897-)
Not a part of the academic world
High school with Malcolm Cowley
One semester each at Ohio State and Columbia. Dropped out.
Part of the Greenwich Village scene during its heyday
Music, art, and book reviewer/editor for The Dial
Brother-in-law of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker
Taught at New School for Social Research in 30s-with Hitler refugees
Much later, taught at Bennington, private progressive women's college outside New York City
Social Reformer--"Towards a Better Life" (title of his novel)
"Fellow traveler" of American Communist Party for decades
But never an "activist"--an intellectual but not an academic
Brilliant theorist, but misunderstood and often despised
The Early Burke (to abut 1940)
Counterstatement (1931) collection of essays from 20s
Attacks art for arts sake, "formalism"--a common academic view) and attacks 20s bourgeoisie
Artist is social critic, bohemian, anti-bourgeoisie
"When in Rome, do as the Greeks"
Art is rhetorical, utility is aesthetic
Form is "the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite." Every work of art is both utilitarian and aesthetic
Every work of art "A particular mode of adjustment to a particular cluster of [historical] conditions" 107
Permanence and Change (1935) response to the Depression
Further broadened his thinking to include "culture" seen in the broadest terms, not merely art
Language can overcome faction, prevent social collapse ("the problem of evil")
Unity of science and art in rhetoric
Cultures "collective poems," history "a five-act play
Study of communication central to better life
Grammar of Motives (1945) a response to Facism
Broadened thought to systematic "study of human relations via a methodological inquiry into cycles or clusters of terms and their functions
"Dramatism"--five "key terms" ("pentad") to analyze not only language but motives (human relations)
Meaning implies purpose, motive(grammar of motives)
Meaning implies purpose, motive(grammar of motives)
What is said implies what is unsaid
Urged "creative conflict," resolution by seeing alternatives,
new perspectives on motives
Urged "creative conflict," resolution by seeing alternatives, new perspectives on motives
Principle of "identification" (slang now)
Rhetoric based on identification
Model is courtship, not battle
Whole communities can come to "identify"
US constitution a good example
But wanted even more, overcoming of hierarchies
Identification brings not only communication but also "communion"
However, there can never be "perfect" identification or there would be no difference, no "goadings of mystery," no rhetoric (we wouldnt be human)
Rhetoric of Motives (1950)
Communication improved through "modes of appeal" and "eloquence." Brings communion, groups united or at least engaged without violence
Very social perspective
Sociologists first academics to acclaim him
Opposite of Richards, who sees communication in individual terms (behavioral
Opposite of Richards, who sees communication in individual terms (behavioral psychology)
Later Burke (c. 1960-date)
Language as Symbolic Action (1966)
Words related to action, but all action is symbolic
Naming (defining) is scientific (positivistic)
Acting (creating, symbolizing) is dramatistic (rhetorical)
Concept of "terministic screens"
Concept of "terministic screens"
Words direct the attention into one channel rather than others.
The said always implies the unsaid
Reality shaped by language
Reality shaped by language
We see what language teaches us to see
Influence of Burke
Always a few American followers, but most thought him eccentric
Sociologists first adopted him
Then european literati
Then some from literary criticism (still a few)
Rhetoric in speech communication
Rhetoric and composition in English departments
Pentad adapted as pedagogical heuristic
Burkes reaction to that mixed
QUESTIONS (You may focus on 992-108a, 1018-1029a, 1034-1040
What does the term "human barnyard" imply for Burke? (993b)
What does Burke mean by "ratios" among the key terms? 996b-1006. How many of those ratios are there?
Find a word in the sta family and use it in a sentence. Does Burkes analysis hold up? (1006b-1008)
What does Burke mean by "identification"? What is the disease of identification? Can identification prevent war? (1019-1021)
How is the ownership of property (and all the human barnyard that goes with it) an instance of "identification." (121-23)
How might rhetoric be extended to include not only deception but self-deceptions? (1028)
What are terministic screens? (1034ff)
Does Burke have a solution to the problem of relativism that the concept of terministic screens implies? (1039b-1041)
A Puzzling Figure in Literary Criticism Is Suddenly Central
By SCOTT McLEMEE
At the age of 20, Kenneth Burke left academic life for good;
or so he thought. "It is now time for me to quit college," he
announced to a friend, "and begin studying." So he dropped out
of Columbia University, and right into the heart of the
Greenwich Village avant garde.
Burke (1897-1993) soon made a mark with his poetry, fiction,
and essays. In 1924, he published the first English
translation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, a version W. H.
Auden later called definitive. A few years later, with the
money from a literary prize, Burke built a small farmhouse in
Andover, N.J. There, he grew vegetables and chopped wood to
heat the place, which had no electricity or plumbing. Burke
joked that he was the king of the Agro-Bohemians.
In that setting, one of the most curious episodes in American
intellectual history took place. The books that Kenneth Burke
started writing from his rustic hideaway -- titles such as
Attitudes Toward History (1938), The Philosophy of Literary
Form (1941), and The Rhetoric of Religion (1962) -- often
puzzled his contemporaries. But in recent years, critics have
read them with something like deja vu: Burke's literary
analysis extends to the most far-reaching speculations about
those familiar topics in contemporary theory: language, power,
Although Burke did eventually return to the classroom, as a
visiting professor of literature at various colleges (still
without a B.A., much less a Ph.D.), he never quite fit into
academe. At the peak of his career, a sympathetic critic wrote
that Burke "has no field, unless it be Burkology." Today, he
would be said to be "doing theory." And the steady output of
books, dissertations, and journal articles about his work
makes clear that Burkology is now an established specialty.
Since his death eight years ago, academic presses have been
publishing work on "KB" (as friends and scholars alike call
him) at an impressive rate. In 1997, the centenary of his
birth was marked by the appearance of Kenneth Burke in
Greenwich Village: Conversing With the Moderns, 1915-1931
(University of Wisconsin Press) -- the first installment of a
projected three-volume intellectual biography by Jack Selzer,
an associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State
University at University Park. A collection of papers, Kenneth
Burke and the 21st Century (State University of New York
Press, 1998), reflects the activity of the Kenneth Burke
Society, which sponsors a triennial conference drawing more
than 150 scholars. And Ross Wolin, an assistant professor of
humanities at Boston University, offers a survey of KB's
career as theorist in a forthcoming book, The Rhetorical
Imagination of Kenneth Burke (University of South Carolina
All of that may be the tip of the iceberg. Burke's complete
oeuvre fills a bookshelf, but there's more to come. Literary
historians are slowly wending their way to the Kenneth Burke
Papers at Penn State, which holds more than half a century of
KB's correspondence with literary figures such as Hart Crane,
Marianne Moore, Allen Tate, Ralph Ellison, and Susan Sontag.
His estate is preparing an edition of Burke's collected
In the fall of 2002, the University of South Carolina Press
will publish a collection of his correspondence with a fellow
New Jersey modernist, William Carlos Williams. And a sizable
volume of Burke's later theoretical essays is due sometime
next year from the University of California Press, under the
title On Human Nature: A Gathering While Everything Flows.
But perhaps the biggest development of all concerns a Burke
project that scholars have analyzed for years, without ever
quite getting to read: an unpublished treatise called A
Symbolic of Motives. The third part of a trilogy Burkeans
sometimes call the "Motivorum," it was to have been the
culmination of the theoretical system he called "dramatism."
The first two volumes of the series were in print by 1950 --
and for decades, Burke announced the final book as
"It has a mythic quality about it," says Mr. Selzer. "It's
kind of become the academic equivalent of an urban legend." As
with any such legend, there are debunkers. An entry in the
soon-to-be-published Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism
flatly states that "A Symbolic of Motives was never written."
News flash: The Symbolic actually exists. You can even read a
little of it in a recent collection, Unending Conversations:
New Writings by and About Kenneth Burke (Southern Illinois
University Press, 2001), edited by Greig Henderson and David
Cratis Williams. According to an essay in that volume by
William Rueckert, a professor emeritus of English at
SUNY-Geneseo, the unfinished, 269-page manuscript was found in
Burke's farmhouse in 1995. (Mr. Rueckert, often considered the
dean of Burke scholarship, prepared the forthcoming collection
On Human Nature and is now working on an edition of the
Symbolic.) A companion essay by Mr. Williams, an assistant
professor of speech communication at the University of
Missouri at Rolla, uses Burke's correspondence to trace the
project's tortuous history -- its endless delays reflecting
both conceptual problems and the less philosophical varieties
The Symbolic marks one turning point in KB's thinking, and
promises to be a touchstone for scholars. During the 1920's,
Burke advocated "art for art's sake": the doctrine (tres
bohemian, at the time) that aesthetic values were utterly
distinct from political, religious, or economic ones. His
earliest critical essays analyzed the formal qualities of
creative works -- their imagery and the rhythms of their
language. But throughout the Great Depression, Burke paid ever
more attention to the rhetorical dimension of writing: how
texts hold readers' interest, persuading them to see the world
in a particular way.
Not all of his examples were literary. Burke's most famous
essay from the 1930's was a close reading of Mein Kampf, an
effort to understand Hitler's appeal to Germans by examining
his memoir's style and narrative flow.
By the 1940's, Burke was working out a general theory of how
people use language -- and how the vocabularies they select in
order to make sense of the world come to dominate them.
(Someone who finds psychoanalytic ideas useful for
understanding a particular nightmare might soon start having
nothing but Freudian dreams.) Burke borrowed ideas from
Thorstein Veblen, George Herbert Mead, and dozens of other
thinkers. A Grammar of Motives (1945) and A Rhetoric of
Motives (1950) contained long digressions on psychology,
philosophy, and legal theory.
Literary scholars who admired Burke's essays on Flaubert or
Mann often found his later work bewildering. They complained
that his ideas about "symbolic action" could apply just as
easily to advertising campaigns as to The Divine Comedy. In
other words, Burke may have accidentally created cultural
With the Symbolic, Burke announced that he would return from
the heights of abstraction to the analysis of literary works.
His philosophical speculations (despite seeming to run off in
20 directions simultaneously) would reveal how a poem or play
held together as a unique object. In his article in Unending
Conversations, SUNY's Mr. Rueckert includes a table of
contents for the Symbolic showing that it was a structured
argument, not just a heap of notes. "He kept rewriting," Mr.
Rueckert says, "but couldn't bring it together. He hit some
conceptual roadblocks along the way. After a while, I think he
just ran out of energy."
David E. Blakesley, director of professional writing in the
English department at Purdue University at West Lafayette,
suspects that Burke's years as a wandering scholar distracted
him from the Symbolic. "While writing the earlier books," he
notes, "Burke led a pretty settled life, whether on the farm
in Andover or teaching at Bennington [College]. Then, in the
60's, he started getting invitations from all over the place
-- Harvard, Palo Alto, wherever. He liked having an audience
for his work, but I think it meant he lost momentum on the
Symbolic." Even so, Mr. Blakesley, who is also an official of
the Kenneth Burke Society, is glad to have the traveling
theorist's posthumous work available. He hopes to include more
extracts from the manuscript in a forthcoming collection of
papers from the society's 1999 conference.
Mr. Selzer, now at work on the second volume of his Burke
biography, contemplates the Symbolic with a jaundiced eye.
"People think of Burke primarily as a system-builder, creating
this big encyclopedic philosophy of language and literature,"
he says. "And some of them want this book to be the part that
will bring everything together. But I don't see the trilogy as
the be-all and end-all of KB's work. I prefer to see his
career as much more heterogeneous and fragmented. The Symbolic
is interesting, but it's not the only thing to study."
While some Burkologists work out the architecture of his
system, other scholars are looking at Burke's dialogue with
his peers. Ann George, an assistant professor of English at
Texas Christian University, is at work on a new edition of
Permanence and Change (1935) -- the crucial early theoretical
work in which Burke shifted away from literary analysis
towards what a later generation would call semiotics.
Students of his work have long been aware that the author
tinkered with the book when he reissued it, in the 1950's. As
he later put it, an emphasis on "community" and
"communication" had led him to advocate a related but more
controversial term, namely "communism." (Although never
actually a member of the party, Burke remained close to it
throughout the Depression.)
But Ms. George wants to do more with her edition than restore
the passages that Burke discretely self-censored during the
McCarthy era. As a graduate student, she found the book
dazzling yet perplexing (a common response upon first reading
Burke). With the encouragement of Mr. Selzer, she searched the
Penn State archive to see what KB had written to friends about
Permanence and Change. "In no time, I was hooked," she says.
"I had never done archival research before and wasn't
especially interested in Burke until that point. But the
correspondence just drew me in. It's like a Who's Who of
American literary modernism. A lot of the things that most
puzzled me about the book started to make sense, given who he
was talking to."
Ms. George discovered that whole pages of Permanence and
Change had first been sketched in Burke's reviews of
now-forgotten authors. The book's weird energy and somewhat
puzzling structure were a byproduct of extensive dialogues
with other thinkers. His theories of communication make more
sense if you understand whom he was communicating with at the
"Burke once said he was not a joiner of clubs," Ms. George
says. "Scholars quote that a lot. I guess it's in keeping with
the image we have of him as a loner. But when you get into the
archive, what you find is that he was actually plugged into
the most remarkable set of intellectual networks. You see him
writing for Marxist publications, but also in touch with the
Agrarians who wrote I'll Take My Stand [a defense of Southern
traditionalism]. He's interested in psychoanalysis, but he's
also talking with the neo-Aristotelians who were at the
University of Chicago.
"If anything, I think that Burke actually joined as many clubs
as he could. We think of him as this hermit thinking complex
thoughts in the wilderness, but that's not the whole story."
Ms. George's dissertation on Permanence and Change is the
foundation of her annotated edition, which will fill in the
missing historical links.
There is plenty of archival work left for Burke researchers.
Penn State's holdings were expanded in 1997 by the addition of
correspondence from the last three decades of his life. A
friend, the poet Howard Nemerov, once described KB as "this
mind which can't stop exploding."
Scholars do not yet have access to Burke's unpublished
manuscripts and working notes, which fill more than a dozen
boxes, according to his son Anthony Burke, an astronomy
professor at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia.
Pressed for a date when those materials will be made available
to the public, representatives of Burke's literary estate are
politely evasive. But the boon to scholarship will be
considerable. Alongside his Symbolic, Burke worked on books
(evidently never finished) about Shakespeare and Coleridge. He
produced an edition of Jeremy Bentham's Table of the Springs
of Action -- a curious treatise in which the British founder
of utilitarianism tried to diagram all the basic motives
governing human action. And over the years, Burke worked on a
sort of memoir of his own intellectual development.
It is anyone's guess what other provocative items will be
found in the literary remains.
Meanwhile, the secondary literature grows steadily, and
preparations continue for the 2002 conference of the Kenneth
Burke Society. Jack Selzer is in no hurry to see any more
abandoned projects from KB's last few decades. He hopes to
finish the next volume of his biography within a year or so --
tracing Burke's literary and philosophical development to the
end of the 1930's. "I've learned one thing from this, if
nothing else," he says. "Never get involved with studying a
thinker who lived to be more than 95 years old."
WRITINGS BY AND ABOUT KENNETH BURKE
The best introduction to Kenneth Burke's work may be the
collections Perspectives by Incongruity and Terms for Order
(Indiana University Press, both 1964), edited by Stanley Edgar
Hyman. Drawing on KB's poetry and fiction as well as his
critical writings, those anthologies provide a condensed but
rich overview, and they include important essays not available
elsewhere. Both are long out of print.
The University of California Press, however, keeps all of
Burke's major theoretical books available. A more recent
selection of his work can be found in On Symbols and Society
(University of Chicago Press, 1989), edited by Joseph R.
Gusfield, a volume in the Heritage of Sociology series. And in
a different vein, see the running intellectual autobiography
in Paul Jay's edition of The Selected Correspondence of
Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981 (Viking, 1988).
Indispensable to the Burkologist, that volume also presents
the moving record of a lifelong friendship.
A number of dissertations and monographs on Burke appeared
during his lifetime. In 1984, scholars formed the Kenneth
Burke Society, which maintains a Web page at
The Elements of Dramatism, by David Blakesley (Longman, Fall
Encounters With Kenneth Burke, by William H. Rueckert
(University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Extensions of the Burkean System, edited by James W. Chesebro
(University of Alabama Press, 1993).
Implicit Rhetoric: Kenneth Burke's Extension of Aristotle's
Concept of Entelechy, by Stan A. Lindsay (University Press of
Kenneth Burke and Contemporary European Thought: Rhetoric in
Transition,edited by Bernard L. Brock (University of Alabama
Kenneth Burke and the Conversation After Philosophy, by
Timothy W. Crusius (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999).
Kenneth Burke and the Scapegoat Process, by C. Allen Carter
(University of Oklahoma Press, 1996).
Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century, edited by Bernard L. Brock
(State University of New York Press, 1998).
Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing With the
Moderns, 1915-1931, by Jack Selzer (University of Wisconsin
Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric and Ideology, by Stephen Bygrave
Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism, by
Robert Wess (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke, by Ross Wolin
(University of South Carolina, July).
Unending Conversations: New Writings by and About Kenneth
Burke, edited by Greig E. Henderson and David Cratis Williams
(Southern Illinois University Press, 2001).