Burke and the unnameable

David Blakesley blakesle at purdue.edu
Fri Jan 4 15:43:28 EST 2002

Hi, James--

I think you might draw from KB's "What Are the Signs of What? (A Theory
of Entitlement)" in _Language as Symbolic Action_ to make some hay with
this topic. I'm thinking in particular of Burke's suggestion that we
turn things around and think of things as signs of words. Words, he
suggests, possess a spirit peculiar to their nature as words, and things
would be "the manifestation of this spirit in visible tangible bodies"
(361). (This is not on the top of my head, but something I wrote about

Here's Burke again: "Thus, in mediating between the social realm and the
realm of nonverbal nature, words communicate to things the spirit that
the society imposes upon the words which have come to be the “names” for
them. The things are in effect the visible tangible material embodiments
of the spirit that infuses them through the medium of words (p. 362)."

I'm working on a Burke/DeLillo essay for an MLA book on DeLillo right
now, so I'd love to hear what you come up with!


Director of Professional Writing
Associate Professor of English
Purdue University 

-----Original Message-----
From: owner-kb at purdue.edu [mailto:owner-kb at purdue.edu] On Behalf Of
Sent: Friday, January 04, 2002 3:11 PM
To: kb at purdue.edu
Subject: Burke and the unnameable

Hello group,

My name is James Wilson, and I’m a graduate student at Kansas State 
University.  I’ve been wondering about Burke in the context of Don
two most recent novels, _Underworld_ and _The Body Artist_.  I know that
suggests that Man is the symbol-making creature, and that most of
humanity is 
based on symbolicity.  But in the two DeLillo novels I’m considering, 
“unnameability” is an important theme.  In _Underworld_, the unnameable
consistently attached to things that are unknown or unknowable, such as
one character says that his father “committed the unthinkable Italian
He left his family.  They don’t even have a name for that.”  There are
occasions in which things that seem to represent the “other” are
“unnameable,” such as the atomic bomb in the 1950’s.

In DeLillo’s _The Body Artist_, unnameability takes on the opposite 
connotation; that is, rather than things unknown to the observer, the 
unnameable is something that is absolutely known, such as the lever on a

toaster or a commonly seen bird.  They are objects that are so integral
to the 
observer's existence that the observer cannot think of a name for them.

I haven’t found anything in Burke’s works that corresponds to the ideas 
DeLillo is presenting.  Does Burke speak of “unnameability” in such a


James Wilson

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