The Agon(y) of Burke

Edward C. Brewer

Presented at the National Communication Association Convention in
New York City, November 21, 1998

Burke believes that "all poets consciously or unconsciously pun all the time..." (Ruekert, 1982, p. 90). Agony is the first word that comes to mind when considering my first readings of Kenneth Burke. The choice of the word "agony" is a conscious pun. It is agonizing to read much of Burke's writing for one who is not as well read as he is. It is agonizing at first to become acquainted with Burke's vocabulary. It is agonizing (especially for a Christian) to deal with much of Burke's use of religion and Christianity. But it is this agonizing that makes Burke's writings so full of potential. For it is in the agonizing that one learns and grows. Burke stretches the mind of the reader and forces one to struggle, to agonize over the assumptions he works from and the theory he articulates. And while the first reading of Burke may be agonizing, each subsequent reading is bound to provide additional insights (and perhaps even more agony). For agony--or the agon--is central to much of Burke's theory.

The Ambiguity of Language

Burke in A Grammar of Motives (1969b) discusses the paradox of substance. He suggests that "though used to designate something within the thing, intrinsic to it, the word etymologically refers to something outside the thing, extrinsic to it" (Burke, 1969b, p. 23). He continues by stating that we "must endow the concept of substance with unresolvable ambiguity..." (Burke, 1969b, p. 24). Agony or struggle often develops out of ambiguity--doubtfulness and uncertainty. But it is this ambiguity that allows us to stretch our words (and our thoughts) in an effort to use and to transcend language. Thus, in critiquing Burke, what one needs to know is not so much the history of something, but how terms are used (or misused). The primary focus is on symbol systems. Symbols do not accompany; they create--they give one meaning and allow one to respond to meaning. So when first reading Burke, it is the agony--or agon--that helps the reader to develop meaning and then to respond to that meaning.

The Quest for Understanding

Reading and seeking to understand Burke's writing is a journey or quest. It is a journey (or quest) that takes one on many side trips, sometimes circling back several times before being able to move on—and moving on could mean forward, backward, Upward, or downward. Movement is part of the struggle. For if one is in agony, if one is in a dramatic conflict, movement is necessary. Struggle (or the drama) requires action. And in reading Burke it becomes apparent that the "act" is where he focuses much of his attention. Act is considered in relation to the other pentadic terms (scene, agent, agency, and purpose), but clearly the focus for Burke is on the act. Reading Burke for the first time requires one to act. It may only be a mental action, but one cannot remain neutral to Burke--a response is necessary in order to resolve (or at least attempt to resolve) the struggle inherent in the agon (in this case the reader versus Burke).

This journey which one takes with Burke has been illustrated by William H. Rueckert (1982) with the experience of enjoying a musical composition:

Since music, though obviously not meaningless, arouses and gratifies desire by non-cognitive means, one's involvement tends to be less localized and more purely formal; one's feelings are manipulated almost in the abstract by the formal harmonies of the piece; and as the theme is gradually complicated and then resolved, so is one involved and aroused, then resolved and appeased ending the journey in a state of rest. If one came to the work in a state of tension, or went to it because one was in such a state, the resolution of the work may indeed become the resolution of extra-musical tensions, no matter what their nature is. Where the work is more specific, as in literature, the purgative journey may in turn be more specific, more localized. Where, for example, the work deals with sin, guilt, expiation, and redemption, and where the auditor himself suffers from tensions caused by these things, the symbolic transference and merger is usually much more immediate, direct, and powerful. Again, the resolution of the work would produce a catharsis in the auditor which purged him, perhaps only temporarily of various extra-literary tensions (p. 26).

Reading Burke creates tension and forces one to struggle. Sometimes Burke may provide a rhetorical catharsis of sorts, but often the reader is forced to agonize over the structures and perspectives that Burke offers and come to a point of rebirth or regeneration of his or her own as the journey through the thick underbrush of Burke's assumptions continues. As one reads the writings of Burke, one is forced to struggle with the self. As Rueckert (1982) puts it "man in search of himself and a way toward the better life is, for Burke, the universal situation; and the almost unbelievably complex drama of this quest is a major subject of all Burke's work" (p. 43). Burke not only demonstrates this in his writings, but requires it of his readers.

The Comic Attitude

This focus on the agon, this struggle with others and with one's self is seen in the comic attitude that Burke takes. Burke (1984) tells us that "the comic frame, in making a man the student of himself, makes it possible for him to 'transcend' occasions when he has been tricked or cheated, since he can readily put such discouragements in his 'assets' column, under the head of 'experience'" (p. 171). This comic frame is dialectic and allows people "to be observers of themselves, while acting" (Burke, 1984, p. 171). Thus, "one would 'transcend' himself by noting his own foibles" (Burke, 1984, p. 171). So again, the "agonies" of life are points of growth and understanding.

One of Burke's major methodologies, of course, is dramatism. According to Rueckert (1982, p. 86), "sometimes Burke calls this the principle of the 'agon,' sometimes 'dramatic alignment,' and sometimes simply 'what vs. what.'" So Burke's concern with self-struggle itself becomes a concept with which the reader struggles and agonizes. Again Rueckert (1982, p. 87) tells us that "an agon analysis converts nature to protagonist, society into antagonist, and locates the drama in the self of the poet...." As one reads the writings of Kenneth Burke, an inner drama does develop as one becomes the protagonist to Burke's antogonist.

When one reads Burke, one is changed. The change may be due to what Burke writes or may be a response to Burke's ideas, but it is change nonetheless. According to Rueckert (1982, p. 125), "the motto of symbolic action is 'change or perish' and it may be interpreted in a number of ways: 'purge or perish,' 'transcend or perish,' 'alter the self or perish.'" When one is involved in an agon, change or transcendence is unavoidable, for the conflict demands resolution and resolution involves change of some sort, perhaps by way of transcendence.

Tragedy and the Dialectical Process

Thus, there is a dialectic of tragedy. "Stated broadly the dialectical (agonistic) approach to knowledge is through the act of assertion, whereby one 'suffers' the kind of knowledge that is the reciprocal of his act" (Burke, 1969b, p. 38). Reading the writings of Burke forces a dialectic--a suffering of knowledge--as one struggles with his journey through words. Rueckert (1982, p. 211) reminds us that "according to Burke, tragedies are purgative journeys which lead one 'from there [the swamp], through here [the work], to that place yonder [the state beyond catharsis]' (Poetics, 226)." On first reading Burke, one seeks a catharsis to release the tension that develops in mucking around in Burke's writings.

Rueckert (1982) suggests that:

One of the central ideas in Burke's theory of tragedy is that the tragic play persecutes the audience in order that it may be purged; that the tragic play, through imitation, actually arouses various tensions in the audience, individually and collectively, in order to release them (p. 220).

This is exactly what reading Burke does to the reader, especially the first-time reader. When one seriously considers the assumptions and perspectives of Burke, one cannot but help to be aroused. A tension develops as one mulls over the theories Burke articulates until eventually a purging or transcedence is necessary for the reader's peace of mind.

The rhetoric of Burke, then addresses the individual's motives in using language and in acting that causes a tension in the reader.

For rhetoric as such is not rooted in any past condition of human society. It is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols (Burke, 1969a, p. 43).

So, in agonizing over the writings of Burke, one is responding to symbols. Symbols that have meaning--meaning that is different (at least to some degree) for each individual.

Man, qua man, is a symbol user. In this respect, every aspect of his "reality" is likely to be seen through a fog of symbols. And not even the hard reality of basic economic facts is sufficient to pierce this symbolic veil (which is intrinsic to the human mind). One man may seek to organize a set of images, another may strive for order among his ideas, a third may feel goaded to make himself head of some political or commercial empire, but however different the situations resulting from these various modes of action, there are purely symbolic motives behind them all, for in all of them there is "overproduction" (Burke, 1969a, p. 136).

Thus, as one reads Burke, especially for the first time, one is forced into a dialectic that involves the symbolic. This dialectic with Burke is tragic in the sense that it involves death. Either one's own ideas must die or one must kill off the ideas of Burke in order to transcend the tension that arises out of the interaction the reader must have with the writings of Burke. We must recognize, then, "that dialectically one may die many times (in fact, each time an assertion leads beyond itself to a new birth) and that tragedy is but a special case of the dialectical process in general" (Burke, 1969b, p. 39). The reader of Burke is thus forced into an agon in which a series of dyings is necessary. "The initial requirement for a an action" (Burke, 1969b, p. 39).

The reader of Burke is called into action in order to bring resolution to the tension which has developed.

Agonizing Theology

Edward C. Appel (1993) argues that Burke is a theologian. Whether or not one buys into this claim, one still must agonize over Burke's logology--his systematic study of theological terms.

William Rueckert (1982, p. 236) suggests that "the shift from dramatism to logology is the shift from the smaller category (literature or drama) to the larger category (words) from which the smaller one derives." He goes on to say that:

as for the three essays that precede "Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven" they are masterful examples of Burke's relentless conceptual thoroughness and compulsion for symmetry. This is especially true of "The First Three Chapters of Genesis," where Burke works out the 'Tautological' cycle of terms implicit in the idea of order. It is one of the most masterful demonstrations available of how Burke's mind works on a text...theology has replaced poetry as the privileged act of language, theology being the "central science" to terms of which any given religion might be "reduced" (p. 239).

So Burke isn't concerned directly with religion per se, but the terminology of religion. He is not concerned with man's relationship to God, but to the word "God." For Burke "'words about God' reach the farthest man can reach beginning from the 'not-words,' or the ground of words in the body" (Rueckert, 1982 p. 240). One should not read Burke, then, expecting answers about religion, but simply about the words of religion. So one cannot but help to agonize over Burke's stance or use of Christian terms, at least if one is reading him from a Christian perspective. So the agony continues.

In The Rhetoric of Religion (1970) Burke writes that:

The Biblical myth pictures natural things as coming into being through the agency of God's Word; but they can merely do as they were designed to do, whereas with God's permission though not without resentment, the seed of Adam can do even what it has been explicitly told not to do. The word-using animal not only understands a thou-shalt-not; it can carry the principle of the negative a step further, and answer the thou-shalt-not with a disobedient No (pp. 186-187).

It is Burke's use of phrases such as "Biblical myth" that causes the Christian reader to cringe. However, if one can look beyond the use of such words to what Burke is suggesting about words, one can stretch one's mind and gain new insight and understanding about the word and symbol-using aspect of humans. Thus, one can begin to see not only the explicit, but also the explicit negatives that develop in the Agon (such as between God and Adam).

Agonizing as it may be for the Christian to read Burke's ideas of motives in Christian theology, one can learn much from his methodology. As Rueckert (1982, p. 264) puts it:

Logology may be described as a methodology for the study of symbol-systems which uses a kind of neutralized Christian theology as its paradigm. That is, everything in Christianity is reduced from doctrine to logological principles, as in the analogies, and the completeness and formal beauties of the Christian scheme are retained on the principle that one should keep and use a good, a perfect, thing when you find it.

Thus, on first reading Burke on may struggle with his use of theological terms, but one soon comes to realize that Burke is using theological terms as a way to study words and the motives involved. Again, Rueckert (1982, p. 265) is helpful:

The rhetoric of religion is language persuading itself to move all the way up to The Word, the principle of perfection itself. The rhetoric of religion is also the rhetoric of language (symbol-using) and the way rhetoric, religion, theology, and logology come together. Words create more words and The Word itself. And words are forever courting The Word


Yes, reading Kenneth Burke for the first time is agonizing, in more ways than one. But it is in the agon that we grow in our understanding. The reader of Burke will not always agree with him, but that is all the better. For as James W. Chesebro (1994, p. 88) reminds us:

We can appropriately follow the advice of Kenneth Burke when he recommends that sometimes we follow his lead but at other times it will be more useful to "reverse directions" or take "another direction." In other words, a critic's system of analysis is not justified because it invokes Burke's name or works. The distinguishing characteristics of a critic's system of analysis should be examined for its limits and biases, for, in the end, each critic must assume responsibility for the system of analysis he or she employs.

Burke (1973, p. 23) suggests that "the main ideal of to use all that is there to use." So, on first reading Burke, one should use all that is there to use. Struggle with Burke--agonize over his ideas--but do not be confined by his system. The reader of Burke should use what he or she can, follow his advice when appropriate, and go his or her own direction when that seems best. Grow through the agon(y).

Works Cited

Appel, E. C. (1993). Kenneth Burke: Coy Theologian. The Journal of Communication and Religion, 16(2), pp. 99-110.

Burke, K. (1969a). A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

---. (1969b). A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

---. (1970). The Rhetoric of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

---. (1973). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press.

---. (1984). Attitudes Toward History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chesebro, J. W. (1994). Extending the Burkeian System: A Response to Tompkins and Cheney.Quarterly Journal of Speech, 80(1), pp. 83-90.

Rueckert, W. H. (1982). Kenneth Burke And the Drama of Human Relations. Berkeley: University of California Press.