[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama

Edappel8@cs.com Edappel8 at cs.com
Wed May 7 12:01:33 EDT 2008

       In citing those "four top scholars" in my previous post, I did not 
intend a slight in respect to other top Burkean scholars that remained 
unmentioned, and who have also employed the language of "tragedy" in their 
interpretation and application of Burke's ideas.  Two of the four I cited were the first to 
be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award of the KBS.  Another one 
received the Distingished Service Award after the publication of his book on 
Burke and contemporary philosophy.  And the other scholar was editor of an 
important volume on landmark essays on Burke, and also a particularly early and 
productive critic of contemporary rhetoric from the perspective of the Burkean 
tragic frame.

       Another point: I've said there's an "exigence" in taxonomic labeling, 
from a Burkean perspective, in respect to genres of drama, to wit, is the most 
extreme and explicitly rhetorical drama to be characterized as "melodramatic" 
or "tragic"?  Bitzer defines an "exigence" as "an imperfection marked by 
urgency" (P&R, 1968).  Well, we all know what Burke seems to think about 
perfecting the imperfect: Beware.  Should we just let the seeming exigence "ride," a 
term Burke once used in another context?  As good Burkeans, might we not respect 
"disorder," renounce "efficiency," extol "uncertainty" and 
"irresponsibility," play the "Bohemian" and "aesthete" with appropriate "intellectual 
vagabondage" ("Program," CS)?

       Do you remember James Kastely's plenary address at the conference in 
New Orleans?  (I summarized it on this list at the time.)  It was published in 
JAC the following year, entitled, "The Earned Increment: Kenneth Burke's 
Argument for Inefficiency" (Vol. 23, 2003).  Kastely's point seems to be that we 
function as "barbaians" if we take any notion from Burke wholesale, that we need 
to "earn our increment" by "creative" transformation of what Burke has said 
in so oblique and anfractuous a manner, that Burke is anything but a font of 
ready-to-hand paradigms and tool-box devices for interpretation and critique.  
Gunning for a "Burkean System," to take a linkage from a book Chesebro edited, 
is precisely not what we should be about.

       Contrast Kastely with something Brock once said, one of the giants of 
Burkology to be honored at Villanova.  Brock noted that Burke resisted the 
idea of bringing order out of the chaos, or semi-chaos, of his thought.  But, 
Brock said, Burke himself has explained the reason why we, as symbol-users, are 
so inclined: We eschew disorder and chaos.  We have great difficulty living 
with it.  We want to "round things out," a Burkean turn of phrase that even 
Kastely looks benignly on (p. 510).

       I think as readers, interpreters, and, I hope, creative-enough users 
of Burke's ideas we need to dwell within the tension these two approaches 
generate.  As I read Kastely, I sense being tied in knots as to what one can duly 
take from Burke without being deemed a "barbarian."  As I recall Brock's 
admonition, I sense we need to reflect carefully on how rigorously we schematize 
Burke's deliberately anarchic style of presentation.

       In that spirit of deliberate, purposive, redemptive/corrective action 
in the midst of self-reflective dubiety and trepidation, I offer my thoughts 
on tragedy and melodrama as the beginning, I hope, of productive conversation.

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