Kenneth Burke on Myth: An Introduction, by Laurence Coupe

Coupe, Laurence. Kenneth Burke on Myth: An Introduction.  New York and London: Routledge, 2005. 206 + xiv. $85 (cloth).

Reviewed by Daniel L. Smith, University of South Carolina
KB Journal 2.1 (Fall 2005)

Arche men oun kai hoion psuche ho muthos tes tragoidias.” — Aristotle, On Poetics (1450a38)

Aristotle’s observation that mythos (better translated as “story” rather than “plot”) is the first principle of tragedy encapsulates one of the vital problematics of Kenneth Burke’s dramatism and logology. Specifically, naming story as the “first principle” of tragedy captures one of the central ambiguities of Burke’s thought. For in identifying a temporal phenomenon as an arche—i.e., a principle “logically prior” to the temporal, according to Burke—Aristotle’s statement renders questionable the boundary between transcendent principles (archai) and the temporal events that “follow from” them. Spanning virtually his entire career, one can witness Burke’s search for a transcendental ground upon which to construct a framework for understanding human existence, with its profoundly symbolic dimensions. This ground takes various forms in his work: “innate forms of the mind” (Counter-Statement, 46); the “permanent certainties of the body” (Permanence and Change, 52); and Burke’s identification of a “grammar” that is “logically prior to both the rhetorical and psychological” (A Grammar of Motives, xviii). These formulations, and others in Burke’s oeuvre, signal a quasi-Kantian sensibility at work. That is to say, Burke sought to identify transcendental a priori conditions of possibility through which to understand the concrete, historical dimensions of humans’ socio-symbolic ways of life. However, at the same time, Burke’s commitment to recognizing the very real complexity and contingency of history and human culture precluded identifying logically prior principles that operate in a strictly deterministic fashion (à la Kant’s transcendental aesthetic). Burke’s transcendentalist proclivities had to work in concert with his sensitivity to the mutability of language and life and the accompanying dynamism of history. Burke’s dual commitment to the transcendental (permanence) and the historical (change) is at the root of the indeterminacy in his work between logically prior conditions of possibility (“principles”) and their temporal act-ualizations. Within and among Burke’s particular works the degree of his commitment to each perspective moves between the two, and thus at times inhabits the liminal or indeterminate space between them.1

Laurence Coupe’s Kenneth Burke On Myth: An Introduction goes a long way toward highlighting the importance, and attendant difficulties, of this dual commitment in Burke’s thought by placing myth at its center. Coupe provocatively asserts that “the unifying theme in all of [Burke’s] work is the meaning of mythology” (3). The significance of Coupe’s thesis with respect to Burke’s dual commitment is evident in the introductory claim that “[m]ythology for Burke is at once historical and universal, temporal and transcendent” (4). Coupe also notes that “Burke’s preoccupation with language cannot be divorced from his preoccupation with mythology. For him . . . logos and mythos go hand in hand” (5). He closes his introductory remarks with his own formulation of a Burkean definition of myth: “A narrative that effects identification within the community that takes it seriously, endorsing shared interests and confirming the given notion of order, while at the same time gesturing toward a more comprehensive identification—that among humanity, the earth, and the universe” (6). Coupe’s Burke-inspired definition prompts a question: How does a community within which narratives can be taken seriously and effect identifications emerge or take form? Put differently, what is the genesis of “the given notion of order” that a particular myth confirms or the “shared interests” it endorses? In short, does placing myth at the center of Burke’s thinking set the mythical cart before the communal-symbolic horse, as it were?

Following his introductory remarks, Coupe performs a virtuoso reading of Burke that spans five chapters. In Chapter 1, “Myth and Society,” Coupe examines two texts, “Revolutionary Symbolism in America” and “Ideology and Myth.” Coupe emphasizes that myth, for Burke, cannot necessarily be equated with falsity. Indeed, Burke contends that myths perform very real social functions, promoting and/or sustaining various forms of communal life and their corresponding modalities of social relations and matrices of meaning—regardless of their “truth” or “falsity.” One may be tempted to think that myth, here, is simply a synonym for ideology. Coupe, however, argues that Burke’s theory of myth is not reducible to ideology; that “the two are not the same thing, though they frequently appear to overlap” (9). He discerns in Burke the idea that myth can have an “ideological function appropriate to the given historical conditions, but it also has a universal dimension that is transhistorical” (11). According to Coupe, myth, unlike ideology, valorizes an ideal of absolute unity and inclusion, while ideology does not idealize the total dissolution of factionalism and division. Indeed, for Coupe, ideology is dependent upon division. One of the defining features of ideology, therefore, is the “us-them” dynamic. 

Thus the overlap between myth and ideology—as Coupe reads Burke—lies in the ways ideologies use the mythic ideal of unity, but do so in a manner that is not all encompassing. Inasmuch as ideology depends upon and attempts to realize historically the mythic principle of unity—albeit in a limited way—Coupe contends that “myth precedes and informs ideology” and then cites Burke, who claims that “we may treat the mythic as the non-political ground of the political, not as antithetical to it, but as the ‘pre-political’ source out of which it is to be derived” (17, my emphasis). Of course, how “the political” is conceptualized is connected to what is considered non- or pre-political; what is at work here is the notion that the pre-political is intimately connected to our human condition as divided beings. That is, as Burke puts it in A Rhetoric of Motives (RM), “there is a generic divisiveness common to all men [that] is a universal fact,” which transcends history and culture (cited in Coupe, 25). This pre-political condition of division is also identified by Burke in RM as “the basis of rhetoric” (cited in Coupe, 25).

Implied by this is the idea that myth is among the first forms rhetoric takes, and thus to understand the mythic roots of rhetoric and the rhetorical operations of myth one cannot ignore, as Coupe notes in Chapter 2—“Myth and Literary Criticism”—the formal principles of narrative (31). What needs to be understood here works at the level of principle, and thus cultural and historical accounts of myth’s origin and power are insufficient—transcendental conditions of possibility must be identified. This explains why, as Coupe proposes, that Burke identifies the origin and power of myth in the intrinsic nature of language itself, rather than in the particular historical circumstances of a given culture or community. For Coupe, the principles of language providing insight into myth are “the negative” and the motivational force of entelechy.

Coupe is right to turn to the negative and entelechy in his attempt to theorize a Burkean conception of myth, given their centrality in Burke’s work. However, the move from the negative to entelechy is made rather quickly, and Coupe’s argument would have been well served at this point if he had taken more time to discuss the negative more systematically, particularly with respect to its connection to “the entelechial principle” (46). For example, missing from Chapter 2 is any discussion of identification and consubstantiality, both intimately linked to the negative, and their relation to the ways in which symbols work to “transcend” the division that is humanity’s “natural” condition via acts of unification. To the extent that myth, as Coupe submits, must be understood as having its motivational roots in the pre-political state of dividedness, a discussion of symbolic mechanisms for transcending division—and their tie to the negative—it seems to me, would be essential to Coupe’s project.

The absence of such a discussion at this point in Coupe’s argument compels me to ask if his desire to put myth at the center of Burke’s thought leads him to miss aspects of Burke’s thought that complicate his thesis. More specifically, while there are places in Burke’s corpus that suggest myth is the pre-political source of politics, and therefore “precede and inform” their ideological dynamics, there is, I think, more evidence in Burke’s body of work to suggest that the symbolic formation of communities and their political dimensions would have to precede and inform any myths that emerge as fundamental symbolic aspects of those communities. In other words, can myth and politics/ideology be a readily distinguished in Burke’s thought in the manner Coupe argues? A thoroughgoing consideration of the negative (and thus the paradox of substance) would, I suggest, bring such easy separation into question. And although Coupe acknowledges that myth is both transcendent and temporal, and periodically reminds his readers of the bond between the two, the former is unduly privileged over the latter. Whether the priority of the transcendental is as consistently at work in Burke’s thought as Coupe’s monograph implies is arguable.

In fairness to Coupe, however, these lines of criticism are, in a sense, quite un-Burkean. For of the many lessons one can learn from Burke, among them is the productiveness of deployments of other thinkers’ ideas that are not bound by piety. It’s not difficult to identify numerous occasions where Burke is “wrong” about the ideas of Nietzsche, Freud, Aristotle, and Spinoza (to name only a few). But such criticism presumes that Burke’s style of engaging thinkers was primarily concerned with being “right” about or accurately representing their ideas, rather than staging dramatic encounters with them. Within these encounters Burke was able to coax forth concepts connected to other thinkers but at the same time diverged from or extended them in creative and inventive ways (ways that “pious” followers would likely shun). This is not to say, though, that Burke was simply unconcerned with what thinkers actually said or meant. To the contrary, Burke’s creative engagements with other thinkers required an attunement not only to the content of their ideas but also to the rhythms of thinking that composed them. Burke entered into and played (along) with these rhythms, transforming an encounter between two or more discrete thinkers into a singular composition of potentials for conceptual improvisation. And while Coupe’s explanations of Burke’s thinking are informative and insightful, though debatable at times, ultimately what is most interesting and thought provoking about his project is what emerges from his ability to play (along) with Burke in this inventive manner.

In Chapter 3, “Myth and ‘Ritual Drama’,” Coupe explores Burke’s “dramatic” conception of social relations, leading him to Burke’s thoughts on ritual, magic, piety, and narrative.  Especially illuminating are the insights into myth generated by Coupe’s deft articulation of the connections and dynamics among these concepts and Burke’s idea of form, culminating in a discussion of “ritual drama” as the “Ur-form” composing social relations (78). Chapter 4, “Myth and Victimage,” covers a theme essential to Burke’s post-Grammar work: the social operations of scapegoating. Here, unlike Chapter 2, the important role of the negative is briefly examined, particularly with respect to its functions in the dynamics of order, guilt, redemption, and victimage. Perhaps the most creative of Coupe’s efforts can be found in Chapter 5, “Myth and Ecology.” As the chapter’s title suggests, the concept of ecology is folded into Coupe’s Burkean theory of myth. However, unlike the concepts of, say, consubstantiality or ritual drama, which inform Burkean theory’s understanding of how myths operate, ecology should be seen as part of the comic sensibility Burke brings to bear in response to the destructive possibilities of our own “push to perfection” that works with the greatest intensity in and through myth.

At the heart of Coupe’s ecological framing of Burke is the connection highlighted between Burke’s concern with the Greek term hodos—understood by him as “the Way”—and its Eastern counterpart of “the Way,” the Tao.  Coupe foregrounds the Tao’s emphasis on living in attunement and harmony with nature; thereby identifying in the Tao what can be described as an ecological ethos rooted in what Coupe calls the “norm of nature” (148).  Ever the Burkean, however, Coupe complicates the notion of nature by folding together Taoist ideas about being’s inextricable immanence with non-being and Burke’s thoughts on “nature” and “supernature.” What results is a conception of nature that is in many ways ambiguous and indeterminate. Coupe therefore eschews “the notion of a permanent, transcendent Nature [that] has been used over the centuries to justify the social status quo and some dubious cultural assumptions” (163).  While “Burke’s instinct is to seek permanence amidst change” (146), the permanence implied by a Taoist-“supernatural” norm of nature, Coupe argues, leaves little room for the “technological psychosis” and hubristic anthropocentrism that has characterized Western culture for quite some time. The attributes of this paradoxical “norm of nature,” which Coupe also describes as “transcendent and permanent” (148), is too complex to summarize and comment upon here. I encourage readers to consult Coupe’s text to explore this norm and consider its implications.

One of the most intriguing parts of this final chapter is Coupe’s suggestion—one carried over into the book’s conclusion—that Burke himself can be considered a mythmaker, and that the rhetorical re-iteration and performance of myth can be a viable form of transformative social action. Coupe’s Burke-inspired ideas about the transformative potentials of myth embraces the para-religious dimensions of Burke’s thought, something avoided by many Burkeans. He doesn’t describe it as such, but Coupe extracts from Burke’s corpus what might be called a comic religiosity, which is quite open to learning from Eastern and Western religious and spiritual traditions but at the same time makes it quite difficult for its “followers” to be self-righteousness or dogmatic. Whatever readers of Coupe’s book may think of the content of its argument—and there is substantial content to engage—it is difficult to deny that Coupe’s project performs for us something all too rare in Burke scholarship: the embodiment of Burke’s “impious” and comically religious spirit. And this, finally, is what makes Kenneth Burke on Myth a must-read.


  1. Following Robert Wess, we might describe this liminal space as “transhistorical,” in contrast to the transcendental or the historical. See Wess, Kenneth Burke:  Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism (1996), 13–28. For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that in Coupe’s text, unlike Wess’s, the transcendent and the transhistorical are synonymous.

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