[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama

Edappel8@cs.com Edappel8 at cs.com
Fri May 9 17:00:11 EDT 2008

>From Gregory Desilet, 5/9/08:

Hi Ed,
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.
> Ed
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