[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama
Edappel8 at cs.com
Fri May 9 17:00:11 EDT 2008
>From Gregory Desilet, 5/9/08:
Thanks for your further exploration of our differences. I find the mix of
you, Burke, Nietzsche, Leslie, Melville, and my own thinking (as I sort that out)
to be challenging. But here's my attempt to sift it and weave it together.
Picking up the thread again on tragedy vs. melodrama (Ed’s comments now
underlined and mine not):
>From Ed’s post of May 8: If we note what the main thread of Burke's
presentations on tragic drama, as contrasted with comic drama (remember: opposites
explain, as in "Counter-Statement"), articulates through his published books---I
speak especially of P&C, ATH, PLF, and RR---"factional tragedy" serves as
featured descriptive of rhetoric, practical rhetoric, in extremis.
Yes, I agree here. Predominantly Burke favors the “factional tragedy”
structure as reflective of his “Iron Law of History” and his rhetoric of
identification and dis-identification whereby congregation transpires through or
inevitably fuels segregation. I also contribute to making the case for this way of
reading Burke in the essay “Nietzsche Contra Burke.”
I also agree with Ed that we may be talking past each other in some places in
our exchange; and I think that may be due to the fact that I have not yet
entirely confronted his argument. So, let me see if I can zero in on it a little
Ed: Look, I think this whole debate boils down to what Burke calls the
entelechial motive, versus a metaperspective on the entelechial motive.
The entelechial motive leads us to the tragic. And Ed acknowledges that this
involves levels of “victimage,” from the symbolic to the real.
Ed: The "tragic mechanism" here referenced is, for Burke, the symbolic
slaying of self and/or other, the partial or representative slaying of self and/or
other, or the actual slaying of self and/or other. Death, or its symbolic or
partial representation, is a perfected sacrifice for violation of the rules that
keep social hierarchies in place. In the main, other moments of the drama are
likewise elevated to such grandiose heights in Burke's explication of tragedy
But the metaperspective rises to an overview of this situation such that
Burke exhorts us humans to take a “transcendent” attitude toward the “Barnyard”
of human relations.
Ed: Now, the metaperspective on the entelechial extremes we find way too much
of in the symbol-users' actions, as manifested in real-life human striving
and in talk about that striving, or inducement to that striving, Burke, of
course, puts front and center in his program. He attaches it to "comedy," however,
not to "tragedy."
Ed goes on to describe what Burke offers as the structure of conflict or the
attitude toward life and conflict from the comic frame.
Ed: "Comedy" is the locus of the "ambivalence" that sees the folly both sides
or all sides in a conflict are guilty of (ATH). That's the genre of human
attitude and symbolic action that fosters what Greg calls, in his book, a
"synagonistic," as opposed to an "antagonistic," conception of wrongdoing and
blameworthiness in a conflict.
Yes, for a “shorthand” take this adequately characterizes what I argue.
However, as noted in my previous post, I’m not satisfied with the use of the word “
comedy” to describe this dramatic or conflict structure. Where “both sides”
are shown to be “blind” through some kind of human “folly” or shortcoming or
misunderstanding (as, for example, in a comedy such as The Holiday). But
when, through this metaperspective we come see, as in the case of Moby Dick, the
blind rage of both animal and man (each perhaps with understandable
provocations) resulting in the ruin of Ahab and all but one of the ship’s crew, that
hardly seems to evoke the connotations associated with “comedy.”
Ed has expressed his dissatisfaction with the word “melodrama” because it
does not seem to align well with the connotations associated with the rhetoric
(and actions), for example, of Hitler. While I think he makes a worthwhile case
for this, I’m not entirely persuaded for reasons given in my previous post.
And now I propose a similar argument about Burke’s use of “comedy.” It
captures something of the blindness, folly, and mistakenness of human actions but
does not serve well to evoke the tragic and deadly consequences of some of the
conflicts that can arise through such blindness, folly, and mistakenness. In
these cases “tragedy” in the sense of Greek tragic drama seems more
Given this assessment, here are the lines of choice as I see it:
Ed has rightly characterized, I think, the nature of the argument as one of “
entitlement” or “naming.” Via Burke’s corpus, rhetoric is keenly tied to the
art of naming. So arguing about naming is not necessarily trivial.
On a broad level there seems to be agreement about, say, the “genealogical”
progression of divisions from a fundamental level. This part of my response
addresses to some extent the genre issue (exploring genre theory) raised by
Leslie Bruder. Starting with Joseph Campbell and the “Hero with a Thousand Faces”
it would seem there is only one story. The “hero” and his “journey.” We can
break this story down into as many variations on a theme (let’s call these va
riations on structure “genre” distinctions) as we like. How we make these
divisions will turn on what we see as crucial differences (between structures) in
relation to particular purposes and contexts.
>From Campbell’s basic story (hero and his journey) any sort of
differentiation we make will begin, in the most minimal sense, with a division into two
types. For Burke this initial division appears to be “tragedy” and “comedy.”
In his essay “Tragedy-lite or Melodrama?” Ed rightly provides a progression
as Burke would have it between tragedy and comedy that shows a continuum from
severe to moderate “debunking” of opponents. The category of “guilty
counteragents,” for example, goes as follows:
Tragedy: diabolical total enemies
Burlesque: bumbling idiots
Melodrama: villains, but not devils
Comedy: mistake-prone klutzes
This taxonomy provides a rationale for the kind of distinction Ed wants to
make between the rhetoric of a Hitler and the rhetoric of a Delay—which amounts
to a degree of difference in the demonization of one’s opponents and the
designs one has for how they should be dealt with.
I do appreciate this difference and the need for consistent terminology for
naming that difference.
But to see what I’m proposing we need to back up a bit. The step Burke makes
between “tragedy” and “comedy” is okay to a point. It’s okay in the sense
that he points out two fundamentally different ways to orient toward conflict.
In the case of what Burke calls “tragedy,” conflict is polarized and
opponents are segregated and regarded as “worthy of sacrifice,” as “diabolical total
enemies.” Here there are usually “innocent victims” but the primary “guilty
victim” becomes the “diabolical enemy” who in the end is destroyed.
In the case of what Burke calls “comedy” conflict is more complex and it
becomes possible to see value and fault on both sides due to human limits in the
form of “blindness,” “error,” and “folly.” These two differing orientations
to conflict are important to note because, in my view, they lie at the root
of two very different orientations to life.
Unfortunately, the use of “comedy” to describe the type of conflict
corresponding to the “nonpartisan” perspective of seeing “both sides” of the
conflict and understanding elements of error and blindness does not align well with
real life conflicts wherein deadly forms of violence take place. This is the
general description of what transpires in Greek tragic drama and is precisely
the kind of viewpoint the tragedians were trying to inspire in the audience (and
in the tragic characters who were brought to tragic realization through the
course of events).
This is one reason I argue in “Nietzsche Contra Burke” that the tragic
vision of life (in keeping with the Greek vision) is much more appropriate for
characterizing life. There are times when the human “comedy” is certainly in
play, where we humans are simple fools, but that does not cover the much more
poignant and profound tragic potential of life to not only make fools of us but to
make killers of us (in our human blindness and flaws). To affirm life while
granting this tragic potential is part of what Nietzsche meant with his notion
of “<i style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal">amor fati” and one reason he
extolled the virtues of the “tragic vision of life.” (And for him, this vision was
not to be confused with nihilism or pessimism).
So, while granting the initial need for a distinction between two ways of
orienting to and structuring conflict, I think Burke makes a less than convincing
rhetorical choice in the naming. I think the following would be one (maybe
not the best) way to show how the naming should go in order to stay clear on the
primary division between structures of conflict:
Factional (partisan) rhetoric Universal (non-partisan) rhetoric
Factional tragedy (Shakespeare) Universal tragedy (Greek tragedy)
Factional burlesque Universal burlesque (Don Rickles none spared)
Factional melodrama Universal melodrama (reflexive melodrama)
Factional comedy (satire) Universal comedy (e.g. as in The Holiday)
On the basis of this kind of taxonomy (which takes a cue from Burke on the
use of “factional” and “universal”) we can distinguish between two broadly
different approaches to dramatic conflict as well as life conflict. As I argue in
“Our Faith in Evil” I think a preference for the right side in this listing
helps to induce attitudes toward conflict and human nature that are more co
nducive to peaceful co-existence and escape from the endless loop of Burke’s “
Iron Law of History.” The reasons for such a belief correspond to the reasons
Burke gives for why attitudes matter and how attitudes coach us toward
particular kinds of responses and actions. Constructive argument, for example, is a
form of non-partisan rhetoric and I believe it promotes better community as well
as better competitive, while still cooperative, inquiry. All for now,
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: Edappel8 at cs.com
> To: info at gregorydesilet.com
> Sent: Friday, May 09, 2008 9:57 AM
> Subject: Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama
> An addendum to my previous post:
> In reference back to what I said about Burke's perhaps ideosyncratic use of
> terms, not unremarked by his readers and critics, the way out of this impasse
> may be simply to follow the example Brummett sets in the title of his
> DeLorean article: "Burkean Comedy and Tragedy, Illustrated in the Arrest of John
> DeLorean" (CSSJ, 1984). It's BURKE'S constructions of comedy and tragedy we're
> applying here, nobody else's. You want to use these terms differently? Go
> ahead. We're following Burke, and our take on what he has said on these matters
> is pretty much unassailable.
> There's more to be said in defense of Burke's views, in my judgment. This,
> however, can be our default position.
> KB Discussion List
> KB at lists.purdue.edu
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