Editors' Essay: Toward the Next Phase

Clarke Rountree and Mark Huglen

Abstract: This essay introduces KB Journal and explains why the teachings of Kenneth Burke are a worthwhile study. We consider Burke's unique life and how it has contributed to the development of his ideas. We characterize Burke's corpora as providing a humanistic paradigm (in the Kuhnian sense of the term) for scholars to use to make the world a better place. Finally, we dedicate KB Journal to fulfilling Burke's goal in "operation benchmark," providing a forum for the exposition of his ideas and for our own interpretations, adaptations, extensions, appropriations, and challenges.


A JOURNAL devoted to the ideas of a single scholar ideally ought to do more than ponder those ideas; it should reflect something of his personality, his spirit, and his motives. We believe this journal can serve those purposes by providing a venue for an ongoing conversation with Kenneth Burke, and we hope to invoke something of his spirit as well. This essay explains why we think that enterprise is worthwhile.

As anyone who knew Mr. Burke can attest, he lived for the engagement of conversation, whether taking on a critic (friendly or otherwise) in print, discoursing while rowing visitors around his pond in Andover, New Jersey (where he would teasingly stop bailing out his leaky boat if you disagreed with him), or creating his own give-and-take exchange through the artifice of a dialogue (as he does so memorably at the end of The Rhetoric of Religion) or through his characteristically dialectical prose. Indeed, Burke himself called for such a dialogue over his ideas at the 1990 Kenneth Burke Conference in New Harmony, Indiana, dubbing it "operation benchmark," which he explained as follows: "I just want to suggest that the way we do it, is that we call it 'operation benchmark' in the sense that we start with what you say, but we only ask that you say, 'Burke says it this way, I say this,' with some reasons" (qtd. in Burks, 5). Following Burke's suggestion, we want this journal to serve as a benchmark to better understand his work and to address problems in our world.

For Burke, the "Unending Conversation" is an almost literal metaphor about human symbol using, language acquisition, the history of ideas, and social interaction. This metaphor has readers joining a party where an ongoing discussion is taking place, listening for a while to catch the drift, and then putting in their "oars" until the hour gets late and they must leave the conversation still heatedly in progress (Philosophy of Literary Form, 110-111). It is a humbling metaphor which reminds us that no one person can know how the conversation begins and ends, that we all enter symbol using midstream, and that none of us will have the final word. Although Kenneth Burke has literally exited the party, he still contributes to our ongoing conversation with a written legacy spanning more than seven decades and tackling some of the most profound ideas, writers, and challenges of the Western tradition.

Putting our own oar in the water of this ongoing conversation, this essay serves to set a tone for the direction of KB Journal, allowing for later editors to point this craft in a new but perhaps not radically different direction. We do so by focusing on the past and the future, asking what Burke has left us and what we hope to do with his ideas in these electronic pages.

Why Do Kenneth Burke's Ideas Intrigue Us?

One reason Burke's ideas have proven so resilient is the extraordinary crucible within which Burke's fertile ideas took shape. The circumstances of Burke's life as scholar and man are unique, quintessentially twentieth-century American (a source of blindness, some would argue), and unlikely ever to be even remotely approximated by any future fellow traveler.

If we work in a shamelessly post hoc fashion, it is easy to connect many dots in Burke's colorful life to show how Burke the man came to develop the corpus of ideas that intrigue us. We begin with an unquestionable raw intelligence that devoured everything, stretched its intellectual legs early, and looked at the world in the unique ways that genius alone permits. We may surmise that his near-fatal accident as a toddler shaped his ideas about fate, the body, and the value of life. Throw in the Harvard professors at Peabody High School, where Burke's six years of Latin and two years of Greek introduced him to language, translation, and classical ideas from the earliest days. Consider the family influences, from his Christian Science mother (who taught him ideas about body-mind and spirit-mind connections at an early age) to his father, the Westinghouse corporation bureaucrat whom Burke describes as having "faith in money" and "living on the edge of a fortune [and yet] broke" (Conversations, 00 10) (a lesson about the symbolic nature of money and the allure of capitalism). And his lifelong love of spirits provided its lessons about body-mind-language connections as well.

Burke's ideas began to take shape while he matured and worked among an amazing collection of brilliant and innovative minds, including Malcolm Cowley, James Light, William Carlos Williams, R. P. Blackmur, Richard McKeon, Marianne Moore, Howard Nemerov, John Crowe Ransom, Theodore Roethke, Robert Penn Warren, and many others. Without this fertile intellectual bed, Burke might never have aspired to be the Aristotle, Nietzsche, Marx, or Freud of his day—and we believe he will attain that stature for future generations.

Might we say that a lack of indoor plumbing at his house, yet a tennis court on his property, also contributed to his development of ideas? Is it relevant to point out that his somewhat unusual married life, marrying his first wife's sister, taught him difficult lessons about how body, soul, and symbols interact, working out "the trouble" in his only novel? Might his decision to educate himself rather than complete his last two years of undergraduate education contribute productively to his writing style and lack of respect for traditional disciplinary boundaries? Did it help or hinder him to be credible enough to accept mostly temporary teaching positions that required him to rely on his writing and editing abilities to earn a living? Burke worked more than half the century as a critic of fiction and non-fiction, music, theater, and society for The Dial, The New Republic, and dozens of other magazines and journals starting in 1920. In the spirit of Burke, we might say that his own life's circumstances were near-perfect conditions for his intended and unintended byproducts—his life and corpus.

We cannot measure how much it meant to live through World War I, the Red Scare, the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Perhaps at best it provided him with a lived sense of shattered illusions. "Big Lies" lead to unspeakable horrors, ideas can be pushed to their logological extremes, and old and new schemes can be reformulated for diverse purposes. Burke's decision to function as what we frame as "a language strategy consultant," who was poorly received at the 1935 Writers' Congress, taught him something about the blinders of worldviews. At the least his experiences provided him with a workshop for studied engagement with human symbol using.

And if Burke, like Nietzsche before him, was ahead of his time, unlike Nietzsche, he lived a life long and healthy enough for the world to catch up with his ideas while he could still clarify and extend them. He has become the most important rhetorical theorist of the twentieth century. He has required acknowledgment by those in literary criticism, even if he missed the opportunity to found a "school" with a large following. He has inspired sociologists, feminists, historians, political scientists, philosophers, composition pedagogues, psychologists, Marxists, classicists, structuralists, poststructuralists, pragmatists, postmodernists, and others less easily labeled.

Given the multidisciplinary nature of Burke's ideas, we want this journal to be multidisciplinary as well. We want it to serve as a common meeting ground, where we can gather those who currently utilize the teachings of this remarkable "wordsmith," keeping all of us abreast of the uses to which Burke is put forth in different fields, sharing bibliographies and insights, and enriching our ongoing conversations.

Kenneth Burke's Legacy

There is much to share, for Burke's legacy is great. We might say that Burke has developed a paradigm similar to those treated in Thomas Kuhn's classic work on scientific revolutions (though Burke might call them "orientations"). Kuhn argues that scientific paradigms are versions of reality that are accepted by a group of scientists because (1) they provide a coherent explanation for the results of their scientific experiments and (2) they are sufficiently open-ended to leave problems that are yet to be solved. Just as science moved from believing that the earth was the center of the universe to believing that the earth revolves around the sun, paradigms go through revolutions. Functioning like Burke's orientations, paradigms are worldviews that pare down what one sees so that one can better focus, scrutinize, and analyze that to which it directs the attention, even as one ignores what it draws attention away from. And, like many rich terministic screens, paradigms carry consequences for orienting one's vision. As Kuhn notes, paradigms provide firm answers to questions such as: "What are the fundamental entities of which the universe is composed? How do these interact with each other and with the senses? What questions may legitimately be asked about such entities and what techniques employed in seeking solutions?" (Kuhn, 4-5)

When we move from the world of things in motion to the more contested, less recalcitrant world of human interaction (encompassing literature, philosophy, art, music, politics, theology, and other symbolically-grounded endeavors), we have human orientations or paradigms, though they may not meet Kuhn's narrower definitions for science.1 Conceptualized as a series of concentric circles, Burke's "orientations" covers a more encompassing field of study than scientific paradigms. For those of us working in Burke's paradigm, however, our questions are similar to Kuhn's: What are the fundamental entities of which the symbolic universe is composed? How do symbols interact with each other and with symbol-using animals? What questions may be asked legitimately about such humans and their symbols, and what techniques employed in analyzing and evaluating them? And, adding a decidedly moral element (which is not fundamental to Kuhn's view of science): How can we avoid war, undermine demagogues, and arm ourselves against a linguistic slippery slope that threatens to hurt us, our neighbors, and our world? Burke provides initial answers to these questions, while leaving plenty for those who would engage his ideas to appropriate, clarify, elaborate, extend, and apply.

Whether one begins with Burke's most complete and coherent theory of humans as symbol users in his "Five Summarizing Essays" explaining his "Definition of Man" in Language as Symbolic Action, or takes synecdochal representations of his larger paradigm in his "Dictionary of Pivotal Terms," "chart, prayer, dream"; principle of entelechy, four master tropes, theory of entitlement, temporizing of essence, psychology of form, pentad, dramatism, logology, terministic screens, identification, things as signs for words, bureaucratization of the imaginative, or paradox of substance, among others, Burke offers a compelling and productive account of our symbolic world. Because Burke has produced such a treasure trove of new ideas, "we all tend to use bits and pieces of Burke" (Rueckert, 21), though his theory is complete enough to ground a Burkean sociology, literary criticism, and rhetorical theory, among other things.2

If Burke provides an adequate paradigm for accounting for our symbolic world, the breadth and depth of his writing, as well as the complexities of and continual challenges to that world, ensure that his paradigm leaves concepts and positions to be elaborated and questions to be answered, as many writers on Burke have noted: Bernard L. Brock and others have asked "Is dramatism metaphorical or literal?" (Brock et al.). Herbert W. Simons wonders whether Burke's insistence on seeing people as foolish rather than vicious allows for "warrantable outrage" in his system.3 Michael Calvin McGee argues that "ideology" provides a better approach to public persuasion than Burke's "philosophy of myth" allows (McGee, 1 and note 1). Frederic Jameson accuses Burke, surprisingly, of missing "the dark underside of language" (88). Frank Lentricchia tries to square an instance of what he sees as "cold-blooded platonism" with an otherwise postmodern Burke he finds in A Grammar of Motives (133).

In Kenneth Burke and Contemporary European Thought, Brock argues that Burke's corpus can be seen as three distinct phases, suggesting that his later work leaves behind the assumptions and critical stance of his earlier work (1-33). Angus Fletcher wonders why Burke "fails to give us an account of beauty" (173), raising the question of whether the Burkean paradigm might have room for a theory of aesthetics. Celeste Condit suggests that Burke's work, undertaken against the backdrop of World War II and the battle between capitalism and communism, needs to be updated to better mesh with our new "scene," and she calls for going post-Burke (as we have gone post-Marx and post-Freud). James W. Chesebro points out that theories grow out of human understandings and, as a consequence, are inherently limited by their monocentrism, logocentrism, and ethnocentrism; Burke's is no exception.

We can benefit from appropriating Burke critically with old problems and with emerging ones, from Shakespeare's plays to President Bush's "War on Terrorism" to the discourse of global warming. We can compare his work with that of other key thinkers, apply his paradigm to issues of race, class, gender, and the environment; and try to anticipate problems (the qualitative equivalent of social science's efforts at prediction). As experiments challenge and force extensions of or revolutions in the scientific paradigms, so too will our appropriations lead to tweaks, extensions, reformulations, and/or corrections of our theoretical itineraries and their underlying commitments and subscriptions.4 And we hope this work might just make the world a better place.

Making the World a Better Place

We believe that making the world a better place is an appropriate purpose for scholarship—particularly Burkean scholarship, which has been dedicated to such grand purposes as "purifying" war.5 We recognize that this purpose begs the question of what "better" might be. But it also recognizes what Burke long has taught us, that there is no neutral vocabulary for talking about the world and that even the words of scholars select, reflect, and deflect in an inevitably rhetorical fashion. Explicitly dedicating our inevitably biased, value-laden contributions to the scholarly dialectics to some good, at the very least, offers the benefit of frankness. And it puts values on the table, urging us to reflect upon what otherwise might lie more quietly beneath our scholarship.

As Burke has taught us, there is a great need for keeping our eye on the life of symbols in our human barnyard. Understanding the condition of division in the "identification/division" dialectic is a key to addressing our pragmatic scholarly purposes. Individuals and groups of people are in a continuous state of division and, therefore, are incessantly shoring up their situations through a continuous process of persuasion. Burke instructs in A Rhetoric of Religion in his creative dialogue between The Lord and Satan: "Humans live in a world of imperfect successions rather than the perfection of 'divine simultaneity,' where 'all ideas are seen at once'" (282). Burke's Satan states: "I see it! I see the paradox! Splendid! By their symbolicity, they [humans] will be able to deviate. A pebble can't make a mistake; it merely exemplifies the laws of motion and position; but an Earth-Man can give a wrong answer. At least in their mistakes, then, they will be `creative'à" (282). Burke's Lord replies: "Yes, and all sorts of new routes can be found, when you start putting things together piecemeal, rather than having everything there in its proper place, all at once, before you begin. Discursive terminologies will allow for a constant succession of permutations and combinations" (282).

We "shore up" the constant successions, permutations, and combinations to create routes for trajectories and projections—beings and Beings—cosmic, corporate, and personal. Some of our projections are productive and unmistakably beautiful, but others are unproductive and downright ugly. When we say that we can use Burke's teachings to "make the world a better place," we are referring to the initiation of productive projections—projections that will improve the human condition and our "communion" and communication in human relationships. An obvious reminder that some trajectories and projections can move us off course is Burke's famous critique of Hitler's Mein Kampf. Burke's concern was to "discover what kind of 'medicine'" that man had "concocted, that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America" (Philosophy of Literary Form 191). Today, the topics of terrorism, the "War on Terrorism," as well as globalization and its implications for cultural conditions and the world economy are intellectual "work zones" in need of further development.

When we say that we can use Burke's teachings to "make the world a better place," we are also referring to the difficulties of communication in everyday activities and encounters that are perhaps less obvious on the world stage but just as important for human relations overall. Carefully think this through: If humans are in an inherent condition of division and continuously shoring up the division for identification, we must understand with Burke that just "getting along with people is one devil of a difficult task, but that, in the last analysis, we should all want to get along with people (and do want to)" (Attitudes Toward History, Introduction). People live their lives in the difficulties of interpersonal contexts and encounters, in family contexts, and in organizational contexts. And the recalcitrant realities of political behavior at the local, state, and national levels are zones of human communication encounter where we need to improve our understanding of the everyday difficulties of communication. Burke's ideas are ready-made for further cultivating interpersonal studies, applied communication studies, gender studies, and family communication studies, and they could be further extended into organizational communication studies (where Tomkins and Cheney have done admirable work) and political communication (where Edelman, Brummett, and others have usefully drawn upon Burke).

Whether used quietly in the less glamorous but, arguably, more important critique of the subtlest forms of communication, or loudly on the visible stage of national and international politics, our hope is that Burke's teachings will be used to initiate productive scholarship and propel new and more beneficial stories in elaborating this grand human drama.


Through "operation benchmark," this journal will follow Burke's lead in encouraging a thorough understanding of our starting points through the explication and clarification of ideas, but we will not shy away from disagreements with those ideas—there are no sacred texts here. Indeed, it would be quite unBurkean and ultimately unproductive for an enterprise of this sort to devolve into hero worship. Nietzsche notwithstanding, we are reminded of a similar challenge faced by the magazines that sprang up to support users of Macintosh computers, which praised heavily the fledgling platform, and its various incarnations, lest criticisms undermine their raison d'etre. But eighty years of challenges to Burke's ideas have not dislodged a core of basic assumptions that have guided his work and have led to their more robust elaboration and extension, giving birth to a well-developed, resilient, and productive paradigm. We will see what develops as we move "toward the next phase." 6


Clarke Rountree is Associate Professor and Chair of Communication Arts at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Mark Huglen is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Minnesota, Crookston.

1 Kuhn refers to "the mature sciences" as having paradigms, and appears to mean the natural sciences (5).

2 Rueckert mentions Hugh Dalziel Duncan's Burkean sociology in particular at 22. Several textbooks in rhetorical theory devote a chapter to Burkean rhetorical theory. See, for example, James L. Golden, Goodwin F. Berquist, and William E. Coleman, The Rhetoric of Western Thought. Burke's influence over literary criticism has been limited, as Frederic Jameson has noted (70), though he certainly offers a sufficient foundation for his own unique approach to literary criticism, as Stanley Edgar Hyman has shown. Additionally, there are arguably sufficient Burkean foundations for an ontology, an epistemology, and a linguistics.

3 Simons raised the issue of warrantable outrage in "Kenneth Burke, Karl Marx, and the Problem of Warrantable Outrage," a paper delivered to the National Communication Association convention, Chicago, 5 November 1999. More recently he has written about this issue in "The rhetorical legacy of Kenneth Burke," in W. Jost and W. Olmstead, eds., A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004): 152-168.

4 See Gregory Clark for a discussion of transcendence through itinerary rather than teleology (18-25).

5 Burke's dedication in A Grammar of Motives is Ad bellum purificandum, "Towards the Purification of War."

6 This was Burke's inscription in Clarke Rountree's edition of Permanence and Change, indicating Burke's recognition that extension would be forthcoming and, indeed, was welcome.

Works Cited

Brock, Bernard L. ed. Kenneth Burke and Contemporary European Thought: Rhetoric in Transition. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

Brock, Bernard L., Kenneth Burke, Parke G. Burgess, and Herbert W. Simons. "Drmatism as Ontology or Epistemology: A Symposium." Communication Quarterly 33 (1985): 17-33.

"Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

---. Attitudes Toward History. 1937, 1939. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

---. Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

---. The Philosophy of Literary Form. 1941. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

---. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

---. The Rhetoric of Religion. 1961. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Burks, Don. "KB and Burke: A Remembrance." The Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter, vol. 9, no. 1, p. 5.

Chesebro, James W. "Extensions of the Burkeian System." Quarterly Journal of Speech 78 (1992): 356-368.

Clark, Gregory. Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Condit, Celeste Michelle. "Post-Burke: Transcending the Sub-Stance of Dramatism." Quarterly Journal of Speech 78 (1992): 349-355.

Conversations with Kenneth Burke. [Videotaped Interviews] Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1986.

Fletcher, Angus. "Volume and Body in Burke's Criticism, or Stalled in the Right Place." In Representing Kenneth Burke. Eds. Hayden White and Margaret Brose. Selected Papers from the English Institute. New Series no. 6. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. 150-175.

Golden, James L., Goodwin F. Berquist, and William E. Coleman. The Rhetoric of Western Thought. 6th edit. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1997.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticism. Rev. edit. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.

Jameson, Frederick. "The Symbolic Inference; or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis." In Representing Kenneth Burke. Eds. Hayden White and Margaret Brose. Selected Papers from the English Institute. New Series no. 6. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. 68-91.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edit. 1962; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Lentricchia, Frank. "Reading History with Kenneth Burke." In Representing Kenneth Burke. Eds. Hayden White and Margaret Brose. Selected Papers from the English Institute. New Series no. 6. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. 119-149.

McGee, Michael Calvin. "The 'Ideograph': A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology." Quarterly Journal of Speech 66 (1980): 1-16.

Rueckert, William. "Some of the Many Kenneth Burkes." In Representing Kenneth Burke. Eds. Hayden White and Margaret Brose. Selected Papers from the English Institute. New Series no. 6. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. 1-30.