Re-entering the Parlor: Kenneth Burke as Pointillist

I originally wrote this for the Kenneth Burke mailing list. I put it here so I'll have a convenient place for storing my writing on KB.


One of the classrooms where I teach has a lovely bookcase. It is lovely not for its construction--I've seen better-made bookcases at Wal-Mart--but for its contents. Several rhetoric books grace these shelves, including A Rhetoric of Motives.

In an unfortunate lapse of judgment, I long ago placed my own copy of this book in storage. So on Monday I signed out this copy and took it home. That night, I opened it and re-entered the Burkean parlor for the first time since graduate school.

Flipping through it, I looked first at Burke's comments on Aristotle and Cicero, because I've been reading their works lately. He makes a good point about identification. And about the relationship between rhetoric and wisdom. And about semantics as an aspect of rhetoric.

Then, remembering my copy of The Rhetorical Tradition, edited by Bizzell and Herzberg, I turned to the excerpt from A Grammar of Motives. More good points. About act, scene, agent, agency, purpose. About dramatism. About the terms we want--not those that avoid ambiguity, but those that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise. And about Georges Seurat: "The paintings of the pointillist Seurat carry the sense of consistency between scene and agent to such lengths that his human figures seem on the point of dissolving into the background" (1000).

I haven't studied Seurat's paintings since my college days, so I pulled out my old copy of Janson's History of Art. Pointillism, of course, is a style of painting in which the artist uses small points of paint to make a picture that can be seen from a distance. One of the most notable examples is Une Baignade.

Burke uses words, not paint, to make his points. But the effect is the same. Each point, taken by itself, may seem striking or interesting. It's not the real picture, though, only a tool used to create the picture.

One might be tempted to say this is true of all writers. They make a number of points that support a single concept. The situation seems different with Burke, however. The picture Burke paints, using thousands of points, can be remarkably murky to those who've seen only a few points. The problem is that his points are interconnected to a degree that's highly unusual, and it takes time to see the points, much less to see the patterns. If you're not careful, some of these patterns might dissolve into the background.

To make matters worse, any of these points, taken alone, can drastically distort Burke's vision. It's as if one were to see a drop from Seurat's paintbrush and say, "Seurat is very good at drawing pretty things that are round and green. I should try drawing pretty green circles."

The pentad, to give one example, may seem little different from basic journalistic wh-questions. What happened? Who did it? When? Why? Where? I can envision a composition teacher picking up Burke's writing, deciding to teach his approach, and giving her students an assignment that requires the same kind of formulaic obedience as a five-paragraph essay.

But the pentad is not--or should not be--restrictive in any such manner. Rather than restricting us, it should release us. It opens new doors for analyzing motives--and if, by walking through these doors, we leave others behind, it's not as if we were being locked in the Burkean parlor. Burke himself observed that when the hour grows late, you must depart.

The hour is late now. I must depart. But I will return--both for more conversation and for another look at the painting on the wall.