Attitudes Toward Kenneth Burke

“I am not a donkey,” Max Weber once said, “and I do not have a field.” And yet it is always possible to label Weber as a sociologist without unduly provoking anybody. Things are decidedly more complicated in the case of the American thinker Kenneth Burke (1897-1993). Situating such Burkean treatises as Permanence and Change (1935), A Grammar of Motives (1945), and Language as Symbolic Action (1966) in cultural and intellectual history is a task to test the limits of interdisciplinary research. His theories concerning aesthetics, communications, social order and ecology took shape through dialogue with the work of Aristotle, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Bergson, and the American pragmatist philosophers, to make the list as short as possible. (And Weber too, of course.) It’s still hard to improve upon the assessment made by Stanley Edgar Hyman, the literary critic and Bennington College professor, more than 60 years ago: “He has no field, unless it be Burkology.”

The triennial meeting of the Kenneth Burke Society, held at Clemson University over the Memorial Day weekend, drew a diverse crowd, numbering just over one hundred people -- with at least a third, by my estimate, being graduate students or junior faculty. The Burkological elders told tales of the days when incorporating more than a couple of citations from “KB” in a dissertation would get you scolded by an adviser. Clearly things have changed in the meantime. Tables near registration were crowded with secondary literature from the past decade or so, as well as a couple of posthumous collections of KB's work. The program featured papers on the implications of his ideas for composition textbooks, disability studies, jazz, environmental activism, and the headscarf controversy.

There were also Burkean discussions of “Mad Men,” Mein Kampf, and the Westboro Baptist Church. Unfortunately I missed it, but Camille Kaminski Lewis gave a paper based on her continuing analysis of the history and ideology of Bob Jones University, where she once taught. (Her book on the subject did not meet with the institution's approval, a matter she discussed in an essay for the Burke Society's Journal.)

The range of topics would sound bewildering to anyone uninitiated into KB’s work; likewise with the vocabulary he created along the way (“dramatism,” “logology,” “terministic screen,” “socio-anagogic interpretation”). But people attending the conference received commemorative tee-shirts bearing excerpts from KB’s “Definition of Man” -- an essay attempting to reduce his thinking to a succinct formula, devoid of any jargon:

"Man is the symbol-making animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, moved by the sense of order, and rotten with perfection."

Quit a bit is going on within that nutshell. (The phrase “rotten with perfection,” for example, is Burke’s idiosyncratic take on Aristotle’s idea of entelechy.) But an academic organization devoted to an esoteric thinker who fits comfortably in no particular departmental pigeonhole would seem unlikely to have much potential for growth. On the final day of the conference, David Cratis Williams told me that when the Kenneth Burke Society formed in 1984, he suspected that it would for the most part appeal to people who had known KB personally. And that small circle was bound to shrink over time, as people retired.

Something else has happened instead. There was more to it than a few then-young Burkologists becoming institutionally well-situated – though that no doubt made a huge difference. Williams, for example, is the director of the graduate program in communication and media studies at Florida Atlantic University. (He is also working on a biography of the maverick thinker.) And David Blakesley, who organized the conference at Clemson just a few months after arriving there to assume an endowed chair in English, is also the founder of Parlor Press, a peer-reviewed scholarly publishing house. The name of the press is taken from a passage in which Burke describes the world as a parlor where an unending conversation unfolds.

Having a few well-placed and entrepreneurial Burkeans has certainly helped to consolidate the Society. But I suspect that other factors are involved in the continuing vitality of the KB scholarship. Three things stood out about the conference: the crowd was multigenerational; many of the younger Burkeans have a strong interest in archival research; and the scholarship is now orienting toward digital media, not just to study it but to use it.

These tendencies seem to be mutually reinforcing. Since the early 1990s, Jack Selzer, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University's main campus, has not only been doing archival research on Burke’s involvement with a number of literary and intellectual circles, but encouraging his students to use the Burke papers at Penn State as well. One of his graduate students was Ann George, now an associate professor of English at Texas Christian University. In 2007, the University of South Carolina Press published Kenneth Burke in the 1930s, which situates its subject in the political and cultural context of the Depression. (While specialized and extremely suggestive to the longtime Burkean, it’s also the book I’d be most likely to recommend to someone new to KB.)

Now students of both Selzer and George are digging around in the 55 linear feet of Burke papers at PSU -- and sometimes taking trips out to the farmhouse in New Jersey where Burke lived and worked, full of still more manuscripts as well as KB’s heavily annotated library. Besides his correspondence with other literary and academic figures, they’re finding unpublished manuscripts and notes showing his concern with economics, music, and other areas relatively neglected by earlier Burke scholars. One senior figure told me that the influx of graduate students was both encouraging and anxiety-inducing: “I really have to finish the project I’ve been working on because now it’s just a matter of time before one of them beats me to it.”

The value of having digital editions of his writings seems clear -- especially in the case of works that Burke revised from edition to edition. In the meantime, two graduate students are digitizing "Conversations with Kenneth Burke," which consists of eight hours of interview footage with Burke conducted by Clarke Rountree at the University of Iowa in 1986. (He is now a professor of communication arts at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.)

Joel Overall, who is one of Ann George's students at TCU, told me about it. "Our project involves upgrading 8 hours of interview footage from VHS to DVD format,” he said. “In addition to upgrading the graphic design of packaging materials, DVD titles, and credits, we're also working on transcriptions of the interview that will be included through subtitles and a searchable pdf file. This is a particularly valuable contribution since KB was somewhat difficult to understand at the age of 89.“ (The other member of the project, Ethan Sproat, is at Purdue, where he worked with David Blakesley before DB's move to Clemson.)

The DVD will be released by the Society within the next year. “Since [Burke’s] written works are often difficult when first encountered, these interviews allow us to hear his voice and see him in cinematic motion, providing us with extra-textual elements that are crucial to understanding his work.”

Following the conference, David Blakesley pointed out another development in the Burkological world. While he was a polyglot as well as a polymath -- reading and translating work from from French and German, and an ardent student of Latin literature as well -- Burke's reputation has long been almost exclusively confined to the United States. But Belgian and French scholars were at the conference.

“They, too, felt welcome, “ he said, “and are excited about their prospects for future work on Burke. In fact, Ronald Soetart (University of Ghent) wants to organize a European Burke conference now. The French contingent was eager to see that as well since there appears to be a groundswell of interest in Burke throughout Europe. I noticed that when I presented on Burke and visual rhetoric at the International Association of Visual Semiotics in Venice last April, too.”

I attended the conference as a keynote speaker, and also delivered a paper -- and so was sitting there feeling mildly fried when I was invited to participate in another multimedia project. A group of Clemson graduate students in the master of arts in professional communication (MAPC) program were conducting a series of interviews for a video on the field of rhetoric. (That is rhetoric understood as the well-established study of effective communication, rather than in the modern sense of a technique for evading reality.)

Drew Stowe, a second-year student in the program, explained that the project would “show the importance of rhetoric for modern students, in the modern university, and to lay audiences such as parents of prospective students, the board of trustees and other corporate partners who recruit graduates from the MAPC program.” Burke is considered one of the most innovative thinkers in rhetoric since antiquity, so scouting the conference for talking heads made sense.

In front of the camera, I aspired to coherence rather than eloquence. My main point was that KB’s work is a toolbox of ideas useful for analyzing the messages with which everyone is bombarded. As someone who’s read a few of Burke’s books until they’ve worn out -- my hardback copy of the first edition of Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), for example, started falling apart during the conference -- I take his continuing relevance as a given. But where did it come from?

“I've always sensed that KB lived at a particularly interesting cultural moment,” wrote Jack Selzer to me by email, following the conference. “Major wars were changing international affairs fundamentally, new communications technologies were so important, and of course postmodern and post-Nietzschean philosophies (and the linguistic turn) were troubling modernist and rationalist assumptions. Somehow he was brilliant enough to perceive the vitality of these changes even as he was living amidst them, and he was able to theorize and meditate on things so productively -- even though (or because?) he was so close to them. As a consequence, what he has to say remains very contemporary. It was wonderful to see the younger scholars drawn to his work in every way imaginable, and I think it has to do with how shrewd KB was about such important intellectual currents.”

Ann George described teaching Burke in a couple of courses over the past years and finding that students “were struck with, and even a little dispirited by,” the parallels between Burke’s motivating concerns and the present scene. “His political, economic, and environmental insights are remarkable: American exceptionalism and the war in Iraq; 'socialization of losses' via government bailouts, 'rereadings' of the Constitution, Ponzi schemes -- it's all there. Of all the theorists we read in the modern rhetoric course … though, students felt Burke offered more answers -- or more hope -- because he didn't idealize human motives or overestimate how much we might be able to change things for the better. “

That’s a very good point -- and there is a profoundly humanist vision that emerges as the pieces of Burke’s theoretical jigsaw puzzle come together.

He put it best in Attitudes Toward History (1937): "The progress of human enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.

“When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that undergirds great tragedy.” Studying Burke is sometimes difficult, but there are moments when it makes the world seem a little less mad.

Scott McLemee
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Full Bore

“Only boring people get bored.” Google offers no settled judgment about who coined this aphorism, but it came to my attention via Arline Tehan, the Rodin scholar, who happens to be my mother-in-law. It was the law of her household, in decades past, giving the kids an incentive to use the library, since otherwise some bit of housework could always be found to occupy their attention. All of this was well before the advent of the Internet, of course -- and I’m told that the TV set was off-limits except during specific evening hours. Then again, staring at a screen never relieves boredom, only anesthetizes it.

The propensity of children to get bored is well-known. Peter Toohey notes in Boredom: A Lively History (Yale University Press) that many adults will insist, out of pride, that they never succumb to it. But thinking of boredom as childish is too simplistic, he argues, while claiming immunity from it is seldom convincing. He admits to being bored “for very large tracts of my life,” and so one may regard his subtitle with a degree of suspicion. If he is prone to boredom, wouldn’t that make him boring? How lively can the book be?

Plenty, as it happens -- though the subtitle is still a bit misleading. The book’s approach is historical only in part. Toohey, a professor of Greek and Roman studies at the University of Calgary, draws on research in such fields as neurochemistry (the relationship between boredom and low dopamine levels) and penology (prisoners in solitary confinement are pushed to the extremes of tedium). He is skeptical, though not dismissive, of the trend in much humanities scholarship of late that treats emotions as so deeply embedded in specific social and cultural contexts as to be inseparable from them.

The most emphatically historicist understanding of boredom, for example, treats it as one of the side effects of modernity, kicking in sometime after the middle of the 18th century. The word “bore” in this sense, whether as a noun or a verb, doesn’t appear in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary from 1755. It seems to enter the English language in the late 1760s, with no clear etymological provenance. And for the symptom-of-modernity interpretation, the timing of its arrival is no accident.

The possibility of boredom only emerges once enough people have the security, leisure, and comfort to complain that security, leisure, and comfort aren’t everything. This coincides with, and is reinforced by, the rapidly expanding market for novels, with their reminder that one’s life could be much more interesting than (alas) it usually is. By the late 18th century, then, the conditions existed for a new sort of unhappiness, requiring a new word to name it. Until then, boredom was not really a problem. Things like famine and religious warfare had made life altogether too exciting.

This insistence on historical context runs against the more commonplace understanding of emotions -- the assumption that they are essentially timeless and universal. To be sure, the factors eliciting admiration, fear, anger, etc., vary from culture to culture, and so does their expression. The disgraced Samurai of the 16th century would commit seppuku; the disgraced American politician of the 21st calls a press conference. But the feelings themselves are the same -- and arguably, there are certain aspects of how we exhibit them cut across any cultural and historical barriers.

The late Silvan Tomkins argued that a few basic affects are hard-wired into us as organisms; they are part of how our nervous systems respond to signals from the environment. Disgust, for example, involves a rapid assessment that something is toxic or contaminating; this induces an involuntary impulse to pull away, with a tendency for the upper lip to curl, as when you smell something foul. The kinds of things inducing that feeling vary from society to society -- and within a society, for that matter. But the curled lip is nature, not culture, at work.

We are complex organisms -- our experience mediated by language and memory, not just sensory impressions. And we are capable of more than one response to a given stimulus. And so the hard-wired affective tendencies identified by Tomkins interact in all kinds of subtle ways -- creating a broad spectrum of human emotions.

Toohey doesn’t discuss affect theory. But he does mention the rather Tomkinsian speculation that boredom may not be a distinct feeling. Instead, it could result from a mixture of “frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy, and the feeling of being trapped or confined.” Marshaling evidence for art and literature over the centuries, Toohey makes the case that variations on this combination of feelings can be found well before modernity. Certain similarities of bodily expression of boredom cut across various cultural divides, such as a certain way of slumping while resting head on hands. Boredom is, he argues, a feeling akin to depression and anger, but also a kind of emotional signal telling you to remove yourself from a situation that might overwhelm you with depression and anger.

For what it's worth, I find this intuitively persuasive. At any movie where there turns out to be a car chase, for example, my response always involves “frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy, and the feeling of being trapped or confined.” And Toohey tends to confirm my mother-in-law's adage. If you wallow in boredom, or try to evade it by mind-numbing expedients -- rather than cultivating the skills needed to redirect your attention to something else -- there are other soul-depleting forces ready to kick in and make things worse. Clearly the author knows this; he's written an interesting book. And when you finish it, there's one on a recent volume on Rodin by another author that I'll recommend.

Scott McLemee
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Unearthing 'McCarthyism at Harvard'

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It's rare for a publication to print letters to the editor about articles published more than 25 years ago. But a letter in the new issue of The New York Review of Books couldn't have been published back then.

The letter, "McCarthyism at Harvard," details the experiences of Robert N. Bellah, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley who previously taught at Harvard -- and ran into difficulties there in the 1950s because of his brief membership in the Communist Party while a Harvard undergraduate in the late 1940s.

Academic Freedom or Intolerance of Faith?

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A new department chair's past writings set off a furor at Brooklyn College.

Did Cross-Dressing Cost Adjunct His Job?

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Withdrawal at Brooklyn

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'Guns, Germs, and Steel' Reconsidered

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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies has had the kind of impact that most scholarly authors can only dream about for their works. First published by W.W. Norton in 1997, the book won a Pulitzer Prize the next year for its author, Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The Sociology of IRB's

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For decades, but especially in recent years, social scientists have been frustrated by institutional review boards, campus bodies that must approve studies involving human subjects.

The IRB's, as they are called, are best known for their work on informed consent with medical research. But the boards also must approve projects in which sociologists conduct surveys or do interviews -- even though such work doesn't pose any of the dangers of, say, a drug whose side effects could be deadly.

Classroom Heat

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Women and Science, Post-Summers

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Sociologists offer unexplored issues raised by the Harvard president's comments -- and suggestions on how colleges should change.


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