Some Uses of Burke in Communication Studies

Barry Brummett and Anna M. Young, Department of Communication Studies, University of Texas-Austin

THE SENIOR AUTHOR OF THIS PAPER began his study of Communication as a fresh faced freshman at the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s. It was an exciting time in the discipline. Social and cultural ferment fostered by the civil rights and the antiwar movements seemed to give a moral high ground to new ways of imagining persuasion and cultural dialogue. Edwin Black’s Rhetorical Criticism and Lloyd Bitzer and Edwin Black’s report on the Wingspread Conference, The Prospect of Rhetoric, were helping scholars to imagine alternatives to traditional, especially Aristotelian, ways of understanding rhetoric. Our colleagues in the social sciences were strengthening the new fields of Interpersonal, Intercultural, and Organizational Communication. Oh, and this new fellow Kenneth Burke in the not too distant past had discovered and had been discovered by a discipline that was still forming itself from out of English and other departments in a long organizational process.

Of course, Burke and Communication Studies had both “been around” since the early years of the twentieth century, but the discipline needed to develop organizationally and intellectually to a position where it could make use of Burke. During the first half of the twentieth century Communication was slowly evolving out of Departments of English, predominantly, as scholars pursued methods for the study of public address. Neither the subject matter of public address nor the dominant methods of the time were entirely welcome among the New Critics and poetasters of the mother discipline. Departments of Speech began to emerge, sometimes including teachers of theatre and the oral interpretation of literature. Communication scholars were rhetoricians, and nearly without exception they studied the great orations and written literature of the past and present. A “neo-Aristotelian” model of inquiry ruled, in which rhetoric was understood as strategic responses, in the form of orations or essays, to historical exigencies. This method was grounded in methods of archival research into important texts and their historical contexts. Such studies appeared regularly in the tellingly-named Quarterly Journal of Speech (QJS), written by such pioneering scholars as William Norwood Brigance, Herbert Wichelns, James Winans, and Charles H. Woolbert. This traditional model imagined rhetoric as an agonistic exchange of reasoned, expositional discourse based on the Aristotelian canon.

It was into such a context that the first essays on Burke appeared in “speech” journals. Without exception, Burke was presented as facilitating new ways of studying and conceptualizing rhetoric, beyond the traditional public address model. Marie Hochmuth Nichols published “Kenneth Burke and the ‘New Rhetoric’” in QJS in April of 1952, and as Marie Hochmuth, “Burkeian Criticism” in the Western Journal of Communication (WJC) in Spring of 1957. Charles Daniel Smith published “From the Discipline of Literary Criticism,” making adaptation of Burke’s approaches to written literature for application to public speaking, in Communication Quarterly in November of 1955. And L. Virginia Holland published “Kenneth Burke’s Dramatistic Approach in Speech Criticism” in QJS in December of 1955. Studies using Burke began appearing with more frequency in the 1960s (Leland M. Griffin’s “A Dramatistic Theory of the Rhetoric of Movements” [1966], Walter R. Fisher’s “The Importance of Style in Systems of Rhetoric” [1962], James W. Chesebro’s “A Construct for Assessing Ethics in Communication” [1969], and so forth). The Griffin article in particular had widespread impact in animating the young field of social movement studies, which took off on a vigorous program of research using both Burkean and non-Burkean methods. An early critical application of Burke was David Ling’s pioneering pentadic study in 1970. By the mid 1970s, Burkean scholarship in Communication was on an upward trajectory, with new ideas mined from older Burkean writings appearing on a regular basis. Much of this early Burkean scholarship, and discussions of it in meetings and conventions, was carried on with a self-conscious feeling of breaking new ground, establishing new paradigms, and clarifying the identity of rhetorical scholarship in Communication as distinct from other disciplines.

Of equal interest is Burke’s own contribution to the scholarly literature in Communication Studies. He first appeared in QJS in October of 1952, in the issue after Nichols’s seminal essay, with the first in a three part series: “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language: Part One.” These were followed by “Postscripts on the Negative” in the QJS of April, 1953, and “Comments,” a contribution to a symposium on “speech criticism” in WJC in the summer of 1968. Other articles and commentaries have appeared in Communication Studies journals since then. Although the foundation of Burke’s scholarship was certainly not published in this discipline, it is interesting to note that he turned to Communication Studies at about the same time that Communication Studies turned to him. Realizations in the 1950s that the study of rhetoric in Communication Studies might be transformed by Burke dovetailed with his own direct contributions toward precisely that end. And that shared realization of mutual interests was occurring at a time when “rhetoric” was still a term in disrepute with the wider academic community, and certainly with the parent discipline of half a century before, English.

Those early studies of Burke were at some level of generality, and tended to make use of the same limited group of key terms. Nichols’s first QJS article features the key terms of rhetoric, identification, substance, dialectics, motivation, and of course the pentad. Holland’s slightly later QJS essay unpacks dramatism, from which center she gets to the pentad, form, and strategy as key concepts in “speech criticism.” As the discipline slowly awoke to Burke’s potential, his work was taught and shared at a similar level of generality. Great structures of scholarly discussion were built on the slender reed of identification which, although a profound and seminal insight, has benefited from later pairings with other Burkean concepts so as to enrich our understanding of different and complex ways in which identification might occur (Day). The pentad was eagerly seized upon by some for its deceptive simplicity, and some poor, early studies were churned out that treated it as a “who, what, when, where, how” sort of checklist to be filled in by naming objective entities. A limited set of key Burkean terms formed the foundation for this early scholarship, terms repeated among scholars like incantations, markers of the special nature of the emerging sub-discipline of “Burkeans.”

The 1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of a few narrower studies that developed focused Burkean concepts in greater depth with the specific purpose of critically analyzing actual texts. S. John Macksoud and Ross Altman published a critique of the play Saint Joan in QJS in April of 1971. Carol A. Berthold developed and applied a Burkean “cluster-agon” method in an essay in Communication Studies (CS) in Winter of 1976. Barry Brummett used Burkean theory of substance to publish “Presidential Substance: The Address of August 15, 1973” in the WJC of Fall, 1975. That essay critiqued a Watergate defense speech by President Nixon. But by and large, Burkean criticism lagged behind Burkean theory in the Communication Studies literature, as widespread application of Burkean methods to actual texts began occurring only in the 1980s and 1990s.

Laying the foundation for later critical work, the largely theoretical explication of Burke proceeded apace during these middle decades. Among examples of this far larger theoretical literature: Laura Crowell published a feisty study of Burke’s use of the term “sheer” in QJS in April of 1977. Robert Heath published an essay on Burke’s use of form in the same journal two years later, and in 1984 in QJS he published a study of Burke’s break with formalism. In the same journal with Heath’s earlier essay is a study of Burke’s own history as a scholar, exploring his development of dramatism, by Michael Feehan. Phillip K. Tompkins and his colleagues suggested the viability of Burke for the study of organizations in Communication Monographs (CM) in June of 1975. Three years later, Gerald D. Baxter and Pat M. Taylor compared Burke’s theory of consubstantiality with Whitehead’s concept of concrescence in CM. Richard B. Gregg published “Kenneth Burke’s Prolegomena to the Study of the Rhetoric of Form” in Communication Quarterly (CQ) in Fall of 1978. Weldon B. Durham explored Burke’s concept of substance in QJS in December of 1980. David Payne explored Burke’s theoretical concepts of “adaptation, mortification, and social reform” in the Southern Communication Journal (SCJ) in Spring of 1986, and a year later Richard L. Johannesen published “Richard M. Weaver’s Uses of Kenneth Burke” in the same journal.

The scholarship during this period was marked by increasing complexity in its choice and treatment of Burkean concepts, but also by a continued focus on theoretical development more than critical application. The trajectory of Burkean scholarship in Communication Studies was in fact, in its first four decades, one of heavy theoretical exploration and explication pushing a rather thin edge of critical and methodological applications of Burkean ideas to texts. As we move to a review of some more recent studies, it will be clear that critical studies of texts are on the rise in our use of Burke, and in recent years have surpassed the largely theoretical works.

Of course, we have only provided a few examples of a literature that began growing steadily in the 1960s, then explosively into the 1970s and 1980s. A complete bibliographic review of Burkean scholarship in Communication Studies is not our aim. Rather, we turn our attention to selected examples of more recent scholarship to assess where we are now, and how Burke appears and is used in Communication Studies. We focus on journals that are clearly in that discipline, such as those sponsored by the National Communication Association and its related regional organizations, or on studies done in other journals by scholars who are in or associated with Communication Studies (Speech Communication, Communication Arts, Communication, etc.) departments. However, a number of examples are ambiguously placed between disciplines, or were written by people sometimes identified with other disciplines, and we include them here because they illustrate the uses of Burke that we want to identify.

We contend here that the place of Burke in Communication Studies may be understood through a scheme of “three Burkes.” We propose three broad categories for understanding the different, yet related, directions that Burkean work in Communication Studies is now pursuing: The Extratextual Burke, The Textualcentric Burke, and the Seminaltextual Burke. What can we mean by such an antic array of terms?

Studies developing The Extratextual Burke are largely historical/biographical studies of Burke as a person of his time. These essays and books show the effects of events and ideologies of different eras on the development of specific Burkean ideas. The nature of his daily work environment, the characteristics of 1930s Marxism, the social and cultural milieus in which he moved, and so forth are shown to influence the evolution of Burke’s thought.

The Textualcentric Burke includes those essays that explain key concepts within Burke, taking his own work as the chief object of study. Connections, contradictions, and missing links are studied as scholars turn inward to focus on the corpus. Key terms are explained, and connected to other central ideas in Burke. As noted above in our brief historical survey, these are the sorts of essays with which Burkean scholarship in Communication Studies largely began, and they are still strongly with us.

The Seminaltextual Burke is comprised of studies that look outward from The Master. We propose two subdivisions of this category. First, Critical Studies: Typically such studies appropriate a focused idea from Burke that is used as, if not transformed into, a method for the critical analysis of texts occurring in politics, popular culture, the media, and so forth. These works are characterized by “real world” textual applications. A second subdivision we call Genealogical Studies: These works treat Burke as an ancestor or descendant in some sense of important or fashionable theories and theorists in rhetorical, philosophical, literary, cultural, or postmodernist studies. Sometimes the claim is simply that Burke “got there” first, sometimes a more causal link is made as to his influence on the development of later scholars or on the influence of earlier theorists on him. Think of Genealogical Studies as embodying Burke’s famous parlor metaphor from The Philosophy of Literary Form (110-111). The remainder of this essay uses those three Burkes as a scheme for arraying some examples of the vigorous scholarly literature in Communication Studies now being produced that collectively bears the name of Kenneth Burke.

The Extratextual Burke

Certainly, it would not be hyperbole to suggest that Burke’s time was one of massive social, political and economic upheaval: two World Wars and countless smaller struggles, the Great Depression, communism taking root in Eastern Europe and Asia, fascism and its devastating consequences in Europe, the formation of labor unions, the rise of radical social protest, equal rights, and rock and roll. Not surprisingly, then, The Extratextual Burke is a holistic theorist who was influenced to write on a wide range of topics in his historical context.

This holistic, man-of-his-time Burke is found in Philip C. Wander’s “At the Ideological Front.” Wander delves into the decade of the 1930’s to uncover how McCarthyism and the American Communist Party, in particular, influenced Burke’s Permanence and Change. Originally published in 1935, the book’s reissue in 1954 deletes much of the historical context indicative of Burke’s position at the ideological front of Marxism. Wander attempts to recover the cultural emphasis of Permanence and Change. In the same vein is James Arnt Aune’s “Burke’s Palimpsest: Rereading Permanence and Change” in which Aune argues that American literary radicalism between the 1930’s and the present breeds three Burke’s: the pragmatic Marxist, the neoconservative Marxist critic, and the unrepentant leftist liberal. Like Wander, Aune strives to locate Burke within a cultural milieu that would give rise to different ideological emphases in his theory. Edward Schiappa and Mary F. Keehner also explore questions of Burke’s historical context in “The ‘Lost’ Passages of Permanence and Change.” Indeed, because the 1954 version of the book omits key references to communism and capitalism present in the 1935 edition, Permanence and Change was altered from an engaged social treatise into a timeless theoretical piece. However, Schiappa and Keehner remind us that the lost passages speak directly to Burke’s foundation and continued development as a social theorist, particularly as a Marxist critic.

In addition to situating Burke in Marxist tradition, scholars contextualize Burke as central to a number of philosophical ideals. This kind of placement of Burke’s work in context is apparent in Andrew King’s “Disciplining the Master: Finding the Via Media for Kenneth Burke” in which King states that Burke’s concerns were not about politics or ideology, so much as what King calls “our over-rhetoricized world.” Via media, then, is literally the “middle way” of maintaining opposites in tension and breaking through symbol systems to recognize the data of everyday experience. The Extratextual Burke is also found in Matthew Seigel’s “One Little Fellow Named Ecology: Ecological Rhetoric in Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes Toward History.” Seigel claims the ecological concerns in the American Dust Bowl created an ecologist out of the ideologist Burke. In support of this claim, Seigel states that Burke’s notion of the comic frame and his critique of efficiency emerge from his growing ecological understandings.

It is interesting that one example of essays on The Extratextual Burke comes from Burke himself. We would so characterize his book chapter “Auscultation, Creation, and Revision: The Rout of the Esthetes,” written in the 1930s but unpublished until it appeared in James W. Chesebro’s book in 1993, which provides some insight into how Burke’s struggles with the political, Marxist environment of that earlier decade shaped Counter-Statement and Permanence and Change. We believe we may also treat Timothy N. Thompson and Anthony J. Palmeri’s essay later in Chesebro’s volume as an example within this category, for they explore the ways in which the changing technological environments during Burke’s lifetime influenced his writing on technology. Finally, we hear rumors of the impending publication of books studying the development of Burkean thought in the 1930s, or the impact of his personal and professional life on his poetry. It is clear from this range of essays that studies exploring The Extratextual Burke have been and will continue to be a strong theme in Burkean scholarship, explaining the influences of his times on his thought and writing.

The Textualcentric Burke

The Textualcentric Burke applies Burkean theory to the scholarly study of language, ethical action, hermeneutics and rhetorical practice. While it is clear that many of the following articles and books share characteristics common to our third evaluative category, The Seminaltextual Burke, we maintain that this body of work centers around the corpus of Burke’s work, teasing out terms, making links, explaining omissions.

One area where Textualcentric Burkean scholars strive to trace substantial themes in his writing is in the realm of ethical action. Certainly, linking Burke to other theorists makes these articles candidates for Seminaltextual reflection, however, the key here is seeing the links in Burke to ethical philosophy and the “holes” in Burke that other ethical thinkers might fill, thus the focus is on Burke’s own texts. Jeffrey W. Murray’s “An Other Ethics for Kenneth Burke” is a prime example of this scholarly trend. Murray identifies deflections of the Other in Burke and offers Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy as a restorative augmentation. Murray uses the pentad to note how such ethical theories might be reconstructed. Jeffrey Murray extends his own work in “An Other-Burkean Frame: Rhetorical Criticism and the Call of the Other” evaluating his own critique by showing that Burke is augmented by Levinas through a rhetorical criticism of Ted Kennedy’s “Chappiquiddick” speech. He concludes that an Other-Burkean frame supplements rhetorical criticism and provides a richer understanding of communication. Jo Scott-Coe’s “Canonical doubt, Critical Certainty: Counter-Conventions in Augustine and Kenneth Burke” moves from Levinas to Augustine in search of a “complete” ethical philosophy from Burke. Scott-Coe argues that although both authors’ works have been canonized, modern scholars tend to divorce religious concern from literary-critical vocabulary such that complex books end up as chopped-up versions of their initial whole. By re-intersecting the rhetorical and linguistic, and the secular and theological, a more complete ethic emerges. A theological evaluation of Burke may also be found in Edward Appel’s “Kenneth Burke: Coy Theologian” which suggests that Burke’s dramatistic philosophy is based on fundamentally metaphysical assumptions, making Burke as a “generic” theologian. Appel advances the idea that logology/dramatism are more completely understood if viewed from a theological perspective and that Burke’s philosophies are universally appealing and applicable because of their quasi-gnosticism. In other words, Burke is both Marxist and theologian according to how he is contextualized as a theorist. Finally, in addition to filling in holes in ethical philosophy, Michael Hassett positions Burke’s text as examples for writers in his “Constructing an Ethical Writer for the Postmodern Scene.” Hassett argues that writers following Burkean texts assume a postmodern reader, and therefore, accept a sense of responsibility for an ethical interaction with the reader. Certainly, ethics are central to any philosophical undertaking, but positioning Burke’s ethic appears central to many Textualcentric endeavors.

Aside from Burke-as-ethicist, a major question also at issue in The Textualcentric Burke is whether Burkean philosophy is a hermeneutical method or a theory of practice. For the hermeneuticists, James Chesebro’s “Extensions of the Burkean System” finds four major limitations in Burke: monocentric bias, logocentric bias, ethnographic bias, and methodological bias. He states Burke’s system is an open one and that Burke himself would want his philosophy to adapt and evolve to be used as hermeneutical methodology. Clarke Rountree’s “Coming to Terms with Kenneth Burke’s Pentad” sees the pentad as a universal heuristic of motives. Indeed, Rountree claims the pentad can be extended to critique all areas of human activity. On the theory of practice side, Fredel Wiant’s “Exploiting Factional Discourse: Wedge Issues in Contemporary American Political Campaigns” suggests that political candidates find or create wedge issues to polarize voters and win advantage. Turning to Burke’s “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” Wiant argues that Hitler uses a granfalloon to “unify” Germans and tell of their symbolic rebirth. Similar strategies are explored in modern political campaigns. Bryan Crable’s “Symbolizing Motion: Burke’s Dialectic and Rhetoric of the Body” re-reads and amends Burke’s writing on action and motion to provide an understanding of the rhetoric of embodiment and issues of the body centering around racial identity. He suggests Burke’s action/motion dichotomy gives us greater vigilance in examining the body and embodiment. None of these articles answers the question as to whether Burke meant his text to be treated as hermeneutic or theories of practice, but within The Textualcentric Burke, it will likely remain a common theme.

A number of Textualcentric essays are general summary reviews of Burke, trying to cast an organizing net over a wide range of his work. One example is William H. Rueckert’s chapter in James W. Chesebro’s book, “A Field Guide to Kenneth Burke—1990.” Two chapters following Rueckert in Chesebro’s volume is Greig E. Henderson’s “Aesthetic and Practical Frames of Reference: Burke, Marx, and the Rhetoric of Social Change.” Henderson’s essay tracks the transition in Burke’s work of the 1930s from literary critic to social critic, but his focus is more on the work rather than the surrounding milieu. A later essay in Chesebro is Dale A. Bertelsen’s “Kenneth Burke’s Conception of Reality: The Process of Transformation and Its Implications for Rhetorical Criticism,” a highly theoretical and philosophical discussion of the way in which the process of symbolic transformation formed an ontological basis for Burke in his writings. Jane Blankenship’s exploration of Burke’s thinking on ecology, later in Chesebro, provides a lexicon of pivotal terms on the subject to be found in his writings. Also in Chesebro we find Bernard L. Brock’s “The Evolution of Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Rhetoric: Dialectic between Epistemology and Ontology,” which teases out the philosophical systems that may be found within Burke’s work, with a special emphasis on his epistemology and ontology.

Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia’s The Legacy of Kenneth Burke contains several essays by Communication Studies scholars, all of them working to explain theoretical concepts within the Burkean corpus. Melia’s “Scientism and Dramatism: Some Quasi-Mathematical Motifs in the Work of Kenneth Burke” is a textualcentric identification of some elements in Burke that display characteristics of mathematical or statistical analysis. Melia focuses especially on the idea of logology and on the pentad. In the same volume, Jane Blankenship’s “’Magic’ and ‘Mystery’ in the Works of Kenneth Burke” traces those key terms in Burke’s theories. Christine Oravec’s essay in Simons and Melia unpacks the idea of identification, leading her to feature the concept of identity. Her study contains some seminaltextual, genealogical elements as well, noting as she does connections between Burke and other scholars such as Frank Lentricchia and Fredric Jameson. These grand organizing efforts, whether in the form of books or ambitious articles, are predictably rare but understandably influential. They construct landmark schemes for understanding much if not all of Burke, benchmarks in relationship to which future scholarship may position itself.

The Seminaltextual Burke

In the category of The Seminaltextual Burke resides the majority of current Burkean scholarship. Seminaltextual Burkean scholars do, essentially, two main kinds of scholarship—that which applies Burke to contemporary texts, and that which traces Burke as either predecessor or successor to other theorists. In applying Burke to current texts, we see scholars tackling such issues as collective memory, media, current political and social events, pedagogy and social order.

For instance, Kathryn M. Olson and Clark D. Olson’s “Beyond Strategy: A Reader-Centered Analysis of Irony’s Dual Persuasive Uses” attempts to reconcile rhetorical theories of irony by centering on Burke’s theory of “ordinary” and “pure persuasion.” Through the ironic cartoons regarding the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, the authors advocate seeking elements of ordinary and pure persuasion in all kinds of texts. Olson and Olson suggest a continued search for rhetoric with great potential for pure persuasion related to Burke’s psychology of form. Another logocentric essay is Brenda Kuseski’s “Kenneth Burke’s Five Dogs and Mother Theresa’s Love” in which she employs Burke’s “Five Dogs” from Language as Symbolic Action to analyze Mother Theresa’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In the “Five Dogs” excerpt, Kuseski points out that only here did Burke structure five levels of meaning for words: primal, lexical, jingle, entelechial and tautological. Taking these, Kuseski uses “Five Dogs” as a critical method to unpack the layered meanings of love in Mother Theresa’s speech. Looking to political language, Mark Moore’s “The Quayle Quagmire: Political Campaigns in the Poetic Form of Burlesque” investigates an unusual case: Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle was ridiculed nationwide, yet never was such a liability that he sank the Bush/Quayle ticket. Moore believes the implication of the poetic form of burlesque employed in the ridicule of Dan Quayle in 1988 was a case of the nation identifying with the not-Quayle over the real candidate, thus electing that which was nonexistent. Edward Appel’s “The Perfected Drama of the Reverend Jerry Falwell” applies Burke’s philosophy of dramatism and the pentad to the tragic and symbolic televised preaching of Reverend Jerry Falwell. From this application, Appel advanced nine “indexes of dramatic intensity” that were embraced by Falwell’s true believers. Lastly in this category of language, Josh Boyd’s “Organizational Rhetoric Doomed to Fail: R.J. Reynolds and the Principle of Oxymoron” takes to task the 1995 PR redemption campaign launched by tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. Boyd contends the campaign was fatally flawed because the principle of oxymoron allows audiences to identify with something much larger and more transcendent than the organization. Because Reynolds failed to take this into consideration, its campaign convinced no one that it was moving in a sound direction.

On the more focused topic of collective memory, Kimberly Harrison’s “Rhetorical Rehearsals: The Construction of Ethos in Confederate Women’s Civil War Diaries” probes Confederate women’s Civil War diaries for evidence of the practice of Burkean self-rhetorics. One particular diary, that of Priscilla “Mittie” Bond, is the primary textual example. In turn, these diaries provide a new way to remember the experience of more marginalized communities during the American Civil War. Lisa Reid Ricker’s “Ars Stripped for Praxis: Robert J. Connors on Coeducation and the Demise of Agonistic Rhetoric” inspects the daily themes written by the women at Radcliffe College as Harvard University introduced coeducation. Ricker contends that women’s writing offers a new way to understand coeducation and her reading of the Radcliffe themes challenges Connors’s conclusion that coeducation led to the demise of agonistic rhetoric.

Among studies which apply Burke to popular texts we find Richard B. Gregg’s “Kenneth Burke’s Concept of Rhetorical Negativity,” in which the idea of the negative is applied to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical texts. The chapter following Gregg’s in Chesebro’s volume is Arnie Madsen’s “Burke’s Representative Anecdote as a Critical Method,” which develops the notion of the anecdote as a method, and illustrates its usefulness in an analysis of the presidential election of 1988.

Moving to the application of Burke to media, particularly film studies, William Benoit and Dawn Nill’s “Oliver Stone’s Defense of JFK” describes how the film JFK was attacked critically and historically upon its release. Applying Burkean notions of mortification and victimage, Benoit and Nill illustrate how Stone was able to surmount this criticism and renew interest in the Kennedy assassination as well as Warren Commission documents. Barry Brummett’s “Electric Literature as Equipment for Living: Haunted House Films” examines five examples of haunted house films for their potential to illustrate Burke’s notion of equipment for living. Brummett reasons that film and cinema engage issues of anomie in that audiences are subjected to paradoxical realms of time and space. He concludes that this chaotic experience serves as equipment for living. Robert Terrill’s “Spectacular Repression: Sanitizing the Batman” suggests the film Batman Forever seeks to sanitize its main character to resolve problems of psycho-sexuality. The result, Terrill maintains, is that Batman Forever is overly managed and excessively demystified rendering it unavailable as equipment for living.

Because Burke lived through such radical social, political and economic changes, his philosophy often is applied in criticism to current sociopolitical events. Caitlin Wills’ “Debating ‘What Ought to Be’: The Comic Frame and Public Moral Argument” is one such example. Wills makes the case that Burke’s comic strategies can shift public argument from scientific deliberation to shared communal values. She uses the example of anti-nuclear power activist Lisa Crawford. Kara Schiltz’s “Every Implemented Child a Star (and Some Other Failures): Guilt and Shame in the Cochlear Implant Debate” pairs Burke’s work on guilt and Helen Merrel Lynd’s work on shame to determine assessments of cochlear implants in the profoundly deaf. Schiltz claims the cochlear implant debate represents a larger struggle over the role and consequences of technology in modern life. In addition, Burke’s concepts of dramatism and hierarchy are also employed to explain the trajectory from guilt to redemption.

An important Seminaltextual theme is to understand Burke-as-pedagogue and to apply his ideas to specific education issues. Georgiana Donavin’s “The Medieval Rhetoric of Identification: A Burkean Reconception” notes that Burke’s theory of identification becomes a useful approach for teaching Medieval Latin history. She sees the ethical concerns and formalism in Medieval Latin treatises as paralleling many of the concerns in Burkean identification. Ellen Quandahl’s “’It’s Essentially as Though This Were Killing Us’: Kenneth Burke on Mortification and Pedagogy” states that Burke’s corpus provides an essential tool for teaching because it allows students to see language in a new way. Jeffrey Carroll’s “Essence, Stasis and Dialectic: Ways that Key Terms Can Mean” locates key terms as fundamental to valuable classroom activities. These ideas from Burke give students a first dose of creating sound and responsible arguments.

Scholars applying Burke to texts seek to grasp issues of social order, generally advocating a dismantling of current hegemonic systems through Burke. One strong example of this scholarship is Kristen Hoerl’s “Monstrous Youth in Suburbia: Disruption and Recovery of the American Dream.” Hoerl reminds us that Burke stated that hierarchy in society was based on a “killing” of some group of people. She mirrors this statement in the symbolic killing of the American Dream after the Columbine High School. Ultimately, because of the killing, people unlike the literal killers at Columbine become consubstantial with one another as the anti-monsters. Robert Westerfelhaus and Diane Ciekawy’s “Cleansing the Social Body: Witchcraft Accusation in an African Society as an Example of Multi-Hierarchical Victimage” makes use of Burke’s victimage, arising from hierarchical social tensions. The authors maintain this victimage may actually be the result of tensions arising out of intersecting or overlapping hierarchies. To illustrate this, Westerfelhaus and Ciekawy focus on a witchcraft accusation trial among the Mijikenda of Kenya. Robert Ivie’s “The Rhetoric of Bush’s ‘War’ on Evil” presents Bush as a rhetorically seductive devil in the service of demagoguery. Ivie compares Bush’s war to Hitler’s battle as similar bastardization of religious thought and chastises Bush’s strategy of pious extremism to create a “moral majority” and subordinate all who fall outside this “majority.”

Something of an engaged spirit of practical and political critique often seems to move in these Seminaltextual studies, springing from an intellectually empowered position of Burkean thought to show how power and influence work in social and cultural life through studies of specific texts. These essays are often not written with a primary interest in further understanding Burke, but in using an understanding of Burke to illuminate social and political conflict and, often, to intervene in those struggles.

The second scholarly path in The Seminaltextual Burke is Genealogical Study, which positions Burke as coming before or following on a particular scholar, theme, or line of scholarship. Regarding Burke as a work-in-progress, Bernard L. Brock’s Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century categorizes Burke’s notable intellectual stages of development: critical realist, conceptualist, and coherentist. While this work focuses entirely on scholarly understandings of Burke at the end of the 20th century, Brock adeptly explicates the states of thought present in Burke’s work and life. Sarah Mahan-Hays and Roger C. Aden opine in “Kenneth Burke’s ‘Attitude’ at a Crossroads of Rhetorical and Cultural Studies: A Proposal and Case Study Illustration” that Burke exists at the center of an American theoretical crossroad and, ultimately, has opened the door for contemporary cultural studies in the discipline. The authors concentrate on Burke’s notions of representative anecdotes, equipment for living, and frames of acceptance/rejection/transition as intersecting with other cultural theorists in a way that allows for more holistic cultural criticism. Finally, Celeste Condit’s “Post Burke: Transcending the Sub-stance of Dramatism” transcends Burke himself to argue that Burke’s corpus of work is perhaps the most important of any theorist of the 20th century for the Communication Studies discipline. Condit explains that Burke was motivated by the universal whereas we are generally centered on the particular. Because of Burke’s universal focus, he is “used” by scholars to theoretically situate a number of issues: race, gender, culture, ethnocentrism, class, religion and social hierarchy. Condit underscores that, although Burke was clearly a man of his time, his appeal and philosophy are timeless.

Most scholars contend Burke and his work are timeless, yet some scholars trace Burke as a theorist who both learned from and then extended other theorists. In terms of Burke learning from and then extending others, Robert Heath’s “Kenneth Burke’s Poetics and the Influence of I.A. Richards: A Cornerstone for Dramatism” is an obvious example. Heath argues that Burke’s understanding of attitudes as embedded in language and emerging from rhetoric and poetics is derivative of I.A. Richards philosophy of incipient actions. Burke incorporates this comprehension into Counter-Statement. Debra Hawhee’s “Burke and Nietzsche” observes that Nietzsche begets Burke. The linkages include perspective by incongruity, motive, terministic screens, and dramatism. Hawhee points to, in particular, Permanence and Change as Burke following Nietzsche as theorist and rhetorician. James Arnt Aune’s “A Historical Materialist Theory of Rhetoric” traces Marx and Hegel as fundamental to Burke’s materialist ideology. Burke was concerned that people not worship at the altar of perfect symbol systems, but be active participants in social and political life where rhetoric marks a point of mediation between structure and struggle. Jack Selzer’s “Kenneth Burke among the Moderns: Counter-Statement as a Counter Statement” shifts gears somewhat to make ideological claims on Burke’s behalf. Selzer advocates Burke’s work as representative of modernist ideology as critical method. By way of illustration, Selzer suggests Counter-Statement is both contradictory and conflicted, demonstrating a high level of skepticism toward even the systematicity Burke lays out.

Of course, Burke set the stage for many who would come after him, as well. Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin cite feminist theorist Starhawk as redeeming Burke’s limited vision of rhetorical theory as domination in their “A Feminist Perspective on Rhetorical Theory: Toward a Clarification of Boundaries.” Foss and Griffin assert a more interconnected system out of Burke’s more individualistic one. John Logie’s “’We Write for the Workers’: Authorship and Communism in Kenneth Burke and Richard Wright” paints a picture of contemporaries, Wright following Burke in distancing himself from the American Communist Party. This split, Logie claims, made Burke a Marxoid rather than a Marxist. Barbara Biesecker’s Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth, Burke, Rhetoric and a Theory of Social Change places Burke’s tensions of structure/subject, history/agency and permanence/change as ideal candidates for deconstruction. Biesecker also suggests that Jacques Derrida’s “double gesture” and Habermas’ “illocutionary/perlocutionary” dialectic follow Burke’s idea of maintaining tensions. Rosalind Gabin’s “Entitling Kenneth Burke” observes that Burke anticipates the work of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Gabin’s claim is based on the consideration that Burke reintegrates various linguistic and rhetoric ideas, placing language as a tool for action. Essentially, Burke becomes a vessel delivering a foundation upon which Barthes, Derrida and de Man build.

Genealogical Studies is exemplified in part by Barbara Biesecker’s Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change. Although much of that volume is also textualcentric, her ordering of Burke’s work is based on showing links, connections, and influences between him and influential poststructuralists. A more explicit attempt to put Burke and prominent poststructuralist, postmodernist theorists into a genealogical order is found in Bernard L. Brock’s edited book, Kenneth Burke and Contemporary European Thought: Rhetoric in Transition. This work connects and disconnects Burke with Jurgen Habermas, Ernesto Grassi, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Genealogical Studies may be illustrated in a negative way by Robert S. Cathcart’s “Instruments of His Own Making: Burke and the Media.” Cathcart argues for a discontinuity between Burke and McLuhan, a failure of Burke’s work to find a bridge into our hypermediated world. In the Simons and Melia volume, David Cratis Williams shows a “margin of overlap” between Jacques Derrida and Burke, in his “Under the Sign of (An)Nihilation: Burke in the Age of Nuclear Destruction and Critical Deconstruction.”

Conclusions and Implications

Generalizations made about an entire discipline are certain to draw disagreement; nevertheless, we offer here some observations about the ways in which Kenneth Burke’s work is used in Communication Studies. An overarching observation would be that for Communication (and allied) scholars, Burke’s work is itself a kind of “parlor” into and through which an astonishing variety of ideas and objects of study have passed. The most remarkable thing about how he has been used in Communication Studies is the broad range of subjects and approaches that his work facilitates. One could not claim that Burke would agree with all of these uses, but then, that is the nature of the parlor metaphor. Consistent with a variety of uses and with the likelihood that Burke would not necessarily sanction all of those uses is our observation that more recent scholarship is more likely to differ from Burke in some sense. From early studies that were largely laudatory in tone we have come to studies that respect Burke enough to challenge him, change him, disagree with him, and put him in his place. We are sure that he would approve.

A clear trajectory that we note in the mix of Burkean works in Communication Studies is a shift from a heavy theoretical emphasis toward more critical applications of Burke’s ideas to actual texts. More recent studies claiming to be Burkean are more likely than earlier studies to show how his ideas might be used to open up interpretive possibilities in film, television, and even good old fashioned speeches. The trend is particularly evident in articles; scholarly books tend to be more heavily theoretical. This is probably to be expected, and may reflect several truths. The greater preponderance of criticism in articles and theory in books reflects an understanding that to get a largely theoretical handle on Burke requires the space of a book; a twenty page journal article is not up to the task at the current level of theoretical complexity.

In general, though, a shift to criticism might be expected. As a scholarly problematic is being developed, exploration and ordering of basic theoretical ideas needs to come before application of those ideas as methods in criticism. Scholars in Communication Studies have needed to work out our basic sets of concepts and terms from Burke first. That task has not been and will never be completely finished, but the number of ideas from Burke that have not had some article written about them is dwindling, if indeed there are any such nuggets left. Now that we have some understanding of Burke’s structure of ideas we can use it as did he, to read texts. Again, we are sure that Burke would approve.

Application of theoretical concepts to texts that are doing real business in the world is an ethical and responsible venture. Criticism, we suggest, is not necessarily better than theory but it is more ethically freighted, as the critic makes assertions and interventions into the world of people and their actions, not only into the world of ideas. Burke himself contains much good theory, of course, but he is at his ethical best when he shows us how that theory can open up actual texts. As we noted above in reviewing Critical Studies, many scholars feel more empowered over recent decades to use Burkean theory as a way to intervene in rhetorical struggles as embodied in real texts, interventions with clear ethical implications. We applaud the implications of this shift to more criticism and engagement in Communication Studies, and we look forward with interest to how this trend might situate our discipline in an academy which is already looking askance at the paradigm of “theory” that has dominated the humanities for so long.

* Barry Brummett is Charles Sapp Centennial Professor in Communication at the University of Texas-Austin. Anna M. Young is Assistant Instructor in Communication at the University of Texas-Austin.


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