Burke and Literacy

Edappel8@cs.com Edappel8 at cs.com
Mon Mar 5 12:31:14 EST 2001

John Duffy brings up an interesting point in respect to Burke's philosophy of 
language: that of mediated communication.  Does Burke address differences, or 
potential differences, in the impact or form that one channel of 
communication might display in relation to another?  Does dramatism/logology 
suggest different implictions of any kind for written as opposed to oral 
communication; imaginative literature as opposed to practical, explicitly 
suasory rhetoric; even language use as contrasted with morally purposeful 
physical motions and the artifacts they bring into being?

I think the overall answer is: No.  Burke roams all over the lot with his 
elliptical and nonlinear style of discourse.  In the process, he often 
employs even basic terms in his own ideosyncratic way.  Obviously, Burke is 
mainly talking about imaginative literature--poems, novels, short stories, 
plays--in such works as CS, PLF, and perhaps even ATH.  When he uses the term 
"poet" in PLF, however, Burke is not just talking about a Coleridge or an 
Odets or a Robert Penn Warren.  What he says under this head often has 
implications for symbol-users in general.

What kind of "symbol-using" does Burke not discuss or allude to in his books, 
not, in the process, customarily being punctilious about distinguishing among 
genres of communication, even types of "symbolic" acts?  Imaginative 
literature, yes, but also speeches, essays, maxims, the jokes of stand-up 
comedians, political tracts and manifestos, autobiographies, operas, 
conversation, you name it.  As Overington says, Burke is not even clear at 
all times whether he's referring only to discourse of one kind or another, or 
also to the morally purposive physical motions discourse brings into being.

In the June, 2000, issue of Communication Monographs, William Benoit says the 
following in his piece on "Genre Theory":

"In the Rhetoric of Motives, [Burke] explains that his purpose is not 
understanding how or why people ACT but how they TALK ABOUT, EXPLAIN, or 
ATTRIBUTE motives in discourse. . . . His interest in the Rhetoric of Motives 
is not action but language about action" (pp. 181-182; emphasis not added).

This might be called the "orthodox" view of Burke in general, not only in 
respect to RM.  "I'm just a word man," Burke is quoted as saying in Em 
Griffin's textbook on communication theories.

I side with Overington.  Burke is not "just a word man," not even in RM, 
where he, in effect, in the "Pure Persuasion" section, defines symbolic 
action, in one sense at least, as "self-interference" (muscular interference 
with causes in nature).  (Earlier,  Burke discusses the symbolic attributes 
of church steeples and city skyscrapers.)  Not in GM, where he cites as the 
"basic unit of action" the "human body in [morally] purposive motion."  Not 
in his later statements, where he epitomizes his work as being about "bodies 
that learn language."  Not in LASA, where he defines human beings as 
"separated from their natural condition by instruments of their own making."  
Not in the Helhaven essays, in which he deals directly with how the concrete 
environmental degradation the spirit of "entelechy" or "motive of 
perfection," inherent in language use, is gutting planet earth.  Burke's 
focus is on language and the motives it geneates in human life, true, but he 
does not altogether stint on addressing the implications language has for 
human life as a whole.

Maybe I've ranged a bit far from John's original question.  What I've said, 
though, illustrates the larger point that Burke does not make many sharp 
distinctions between and among genres, channels, or types of symbolic 
communication or symbolic acts.  This feature of Burke's thought underscores 
what Jim Chesebro once said to me: "Burke is preparadigmatic.  You provide 
the paradigm."  That's why, in my essay on the burlesque rhetoric of William 
F. Buckley, Jr. (Western Journal of Communication, Summer, 1996), I not only 
had to weave together my own paradigm for burlesque discourse, based on 
Burke's analysis, but also depart from Burke a bit in my explanation of it as 
illustrating a tension between comedy and tragedy.  Burke calls tragedy a 
"frame of acceptance" in ATH.  That characterization works only for tragic 
literature, however, not tragic-frame practical rhetoric.  Tragic-frame 
practical rhetoric is an intense form of "rejection," and it is from that 
side of the tension that burlesque derives its virulently dismissive features.

I certinly would be interested, along with John, in anybody else's thoughts 
on how Burke relates to studies of mediated communication.


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