Book Review: Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Dramatism

Weiser, M. Elizabeth. Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Dramatism. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2008.

In the epigraph to A Grammar of Motives, Kenneth Burke wrote that he wanted to purify—not exactly end—war. The statement is bewildering (even if bewilderment is the appropriate affective response to Burke). What did he mean by that? In Burke, War, Words, M. Elizabeth Weiser explains that “while ad bellum purificandum has been rightly taken to mean a stance toward all debates that devolve into physical conflicts, it was also written as a specific stance toward a specific war—World War II as experienced from the home front” (3). Weiser’s scintillating book examines Burke’s masterpiece of war purification in the context of World War II, the war of 72 million casualties, the war-iest of all wars, the war of Spielbergian proportions. In fact she argues in the preface that the timelessness of A Grammar of Motives (hereafter GM)ironically takes strength from its timeliness as a response to the non-dialectic of human destruction. Though dramatismhas now become “an eternal theory” (147), Weiser proposes to account for its time-bounded valuethrough what she calls “rhetoricizing,” an act of interrogating a theory as a rhetorical construct in a historical context. Instead of using rhetoric to practice theory by doing history, as with Mailloux’s rhetorical hermeneutics, Weiser practices rhetoric “by using history to do theory” (xiii). (I am tempted here to propose my own theory of using theory to practice history by doing rhetoric.)  

Weiser’s approach makes good sense. Perhaps it’s the only way to engage Burke on his own terms, in his own parlor, “responding to his work as historical” and yet “still speaking timelessly across the decades” (148). With meticulous historical sleuthing—inspired, I imagine, by the careful work of Jack Selzer and Ann George—Weiser shows us how the concepts in GM unfolded from Burke’s (mostly friendly) conversations with some of the most prominent American thinkers. She compiles an all-star cast of interlocutors: Malcolm Cowley, John Crowe Ransom, Alan Tate, S.I. Hayakawa, Alfred Korzybski, W.H. Auden, Robert Penn Warren, William Carlos Williams—even Ralph Ellison makes a cameo to call Burke a “rhetoritician” (84). Weiser sets up these dialogues to give a rich accounting of how Burke’s Dramatism unfolded in the transformative give and take of intellectual inquiry during the war years. To rhetoricize GM, Weiser analyzes the archive of private correspondence, numerous essays and articles, and Burke’s major works from Permanence and Change onward. Though she has framed Burke, War, Words as an analytical work, I suggest it is better read—without any diminution of value or importance—as intellectual biography, with a rhetorical twist. What rhetoricizing actually looks like may not be as important as the intellectual journey that takes us through the incongruities and complexities of Dramatism in its context. 

Weiser cleverly sets up her project with the terms of the pentad as architecture, starting with the “scene” of the 1930s that led Burke to develop the four “trends” of dramatism: “falling on the bias, translation, ambiguity and incongruity, and the comic corrective” (7). In the 30s Burke worked hard to reconcile the oppositions put into play by aesthetic critics, who concerned themselves primarily with textual wholeness and psychological complexity, and Marxist critics who wanted to account for material socioeconomic forces. Because he believed poetic language had real world work to perform, Burke wanted “to translate the aesthetes’ ambiguity, irony, and eloquence to the Marxists and the latter’s persuasive propaganda to the aesthetes” so that the two viewpoints could merge (19). Burke saw ambiguity, incongruity, and the comic corrective as key terms in an ethical stance that fostered openness to culture’s multitudinous voices—the diverse, and equally compelling, ways of slicing the cheesy universe, to use his own odd metaphor (20). Weiser leads us through this inchoate and often confusing “protodramatism” as it unfolds in Burke’s prewar writings wherein he argued for a poetic, rhetorical, “flexible analysis” for human symbolic interaction (24-25). She also points out that his early attempts to fall on the bias of everything “meant general confusion by all” (26). Or, it was perceived as fence-sitting:  neither the aesthetes or the Marxists “could see his position on the bias as anything other than an attempt to weaken their own” (11). In fact a common feature of Burke’s intellectual history, which he shares with other theoretically-oriented critics, is that he was chronically misunderstood, even by those select few who read his works carefully.

After setting the scene, Weiser presents the agents—the “word men,” the new critics, neo-Aristotelians, sociologists, and general semanticists whom Burke courted and corrected and with whom he “haggled much,” in his own words (32). In Philosophy of Literary Form, published in 1941, Burke wanted to demonstrate the “semi-propagandistic” nature of poetic expression in order to fall on the bias between aesthetic (literary, internal) and social (political, external) texts (41). He wanted the semanticists to adopt a more flexible understanding of terms, and he wanted the New Critics to see poetry as situated action. Neither group got it. As Weiser writes, “the critics could not see how his method got at the essence of poetry, nor could they see how poetry could do the job of science” (49). His courtship with critic John Crowe Ransom becomes emblematic of just how hard it is to transcend differences and find comic commonalities. Weiser’s astute color commentary on “the Burke-Ransom conversation” (126) begins in the summer of 1941 when the two of them “were engaged in a serious discussion of their critical overlaps and divergences” (51). Earlier Burke had written to Ransom—in a move to define the relationship, let’s say—that “it seems that, at every point where we agree, there is a margin of difference that may make all the difference” (42). But just when it looked like “the two of them were coming together,” Ransom wrote a less-than-glowing review of The Philosophy of Literary Form for the Kenyon Review, arguing that Burke did not have a clear philosophy of poetry and therefore provided little in the way of a “‘poetic’ understanding of the social world” (52-53).  Years later, after GM had been sent out to the world, Ransom was still wrestling with Burke’s dramatism: it was, in the words of Leonard Brown, “sweating hell out of him” (144).

Weiser spends two chapters on the war years, when American critics and artists were pushed into what Burke considered a false dilemma: either ostracize yourself by fighting for an obsolete isolationism, or support the war effort with artsy propaganda. It is during the war years that Weiser shows us how Burke’s Dramatism began to take shape as a response to human conflict—a response that steered clear of the false unity of fascism or jingoism by celebrating “the parliamentary babel of incongruous perspectives” (75-76). The real challenge for Burke, though, was articulating Dramatism in a way that made it relevant to the struggles of life during war. Weiser points out how it took Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor for Burke to overcome his “cultural lag” and engage the war as a serious intellectual project (77). Weiser shares one anecdote I find particularly telling: In 1940, when Robert Penn Warren returned from his Guggenheim Fellowship in Italy after escaping a brutal bombing and a boat ride through a U-boat infested ocean, Burke asked him “whether he could critically analyze Warren’s play for symbolic clusters” (72). Burke’s “act” during the war was to develop what he hoped would be an alternative to war—the Dramatistic mode that leads us to see “one’s enemies” in “a comic rather than a tragic light” (93). But in the thick of the war effort, when some of his literary friends had jobs working with Archibald MacLeish in the Office of Facts and Figures, Burke got the cold shoulder from Uncle Sam, partly because Uncle Sam didn’t quite know how Burke’s “singular skills [could] best be applied to direct service in the war” (91). He was “mildly humiliated” that after all his work on motives since Permanence and Change, his government wanted him “not at all while embracing fifth-rate college hacks by the trainload” (91). Though he was sitting out the official war effort, he hoped that someone in “officialdom” would read his work anyway and “lay eyes upon it long enough to swipe from it” (91).

It never happened, not even after the war was over and the kairos was right for the mystic chords of Dramatism to stretch to every heart and hearthstone. Weiser tells us that “Burke had originally hoped that publication of GM as the war ended would change the way America acted in a postwar world” (134). But a prophet hath no honor in his own country. The government ignored it, as did the political Left. Even the editors of the New Republic, who had printed Burke’s articles before, took a pass on excerpts of GM because they thought all of it was “much too profound” for their readers (134). Even worse, after the A-bombs unleashed Shiva, the god of death, on Japan and the whole world, Burke’s purificandum seemed “out of touch with the profoundly rhetorical scene” that made nuclear annihilation a possibility (139). Weiser’s careful analysis of the conclusion of GM suggests that Burke’s own attitude became less sanguine as he put the finishing touches on his 500-page mammoth that Prentice-Hall courageously had agreed to publish. Though “neo-Stoic resignation was not the attitude with which Burke began GM,” she explains, using Michael Denning as a collaborative witness, “it was the attitude with which Burke ended it” (139).

As with all his other works, the response to GM was mixed. With the deftness of the best intellectual biography, Weiser shows us how even the most sympathetic readers had little idea what Burke really was saying. Perhaps Hayakawa speaks for many such readers when he wrote that Burke’s treatment of ambiguity was so capacious and intricate that “for dozens of pages at a time, one can only vaguely discern what he is talking about” (140). Nevertheless the book sold well for the time, garnered attention from multiple intellectual communities, and had at least nineteen high-profile reviews, including one from Max Black, the analytic philosopher, who called GM a“ vast rambling edifice of quasi-sociological and quasi-psychoanalytical speculation” (141). To Burke’s bitter disappointment, Ransom wrote a scathing review of GM in The New Republic, panning it as a derivative of Aristotle’s Four Causes (142).Other associates declined to review it because they couldn’t set aside the requisite two months of full-time reading to absorb it sufficiently. William Carlos Williams wrote Burke in December 1945 that he was delighted with the book, a book “I shall never entirely put down.” Several months later he wrote, “I have not as yet finished reading it. When? Christ knows. It is looking at me now across my desk” (145). Amen. Perhaps none of us have as yet finished reading A Grammar of Motives.
As you can see from the focus of this review, the best part (I argue) of Burke, War, Words is not necessarily the analysis of Dramatism as a theory but the historical backstory of how it came to pass through the back and forthness of intellectual dialectic. Though she leaves out much of Burke’s non-Dramatistic biography, Weiser has paved the way for a new genre in rhetorical studies: the biography of a theory. There are compelling antecedents for this kind of work, but not too many in our field. (Parts of Robert Richardson’s biography of William James come to mind.) This kind of storytelling is particularly exciting for those of us who have read only Burke’s major works without really knowing the man behind the moustache. My only regret is that Weiser did not spend more time evaluating—rather than simply interpreting—Burke’s composition of Dramatism. It is in those rare instances when she does that she is most provocative. For example, she mentions that some of Burke’s critics wanted him to be more “pedagogical,” by which they meant for him to make his methodology clearer and more accessible.

Burke struggled with articulating Dramatism all his intellectual career, and Weiser foregrounds that struggle near the end of the book. The last pages of the chapter “The Dialectical Purpose of Dramatism” are, to use a maudlin word, sad. We see Burke as the jilted lover, trying desperately to be understood, in fact begging editors for just one more chance to clarify what he meant by Dramatism. While Burke’s interlocutor-friends published Pulitzer Prize-winning novels (Warren), wrote immensely popular textbooks (Brooks and Warren), took prestigious editing jobs (Tate and Ransom), and got appointed as U.S. delegates to UNESCO (McKeon), Burke was busy overexplaining himself, “compounding his rhetorical problem of too many words for a time demanding action” (145). He was “furious at being misrepresented when he had been trying so hard to be understood” (143). Weiser breaks from her rhetoricizing to make a strong point that still needs to be explored: “His friends might encourage him to be pedagogical rather than heuristic, to write out his methodology, to pack his points with meaning, but the simple truth was that as a writer Burke was oftentimes his own worst enemy” (140). At the time it seemed he was demanding too much of his readers. Perhaps Weiser has shown us that purifying a theory is about as hard as purifying war.

History, Weiser notes in the epilogue, has “been kinder to Kenneth Burke,” and Burke, War, Words is exemplary of the work that continues to be spun out alchemically (whose Arabic root means “transformation”) from the mixed materials of GM. It is indeed an inexhaustible work, and it has provided the theoretical backbone for a discipline that may not have survived otherwise. In providing the biography for Dramatism, Weiser helps us correct our habit of appropriating fragments of a fuller parlor conversation (148). We should hope for more rhetoricizing in the future.

Brian Jackson, Brigham Young University