Burke’s Comic Frame and The Problem of Warrantable Outrage

Herbert W. Simons, Temple University1

I told her  what I used to try to tell my brother about the problem of impassioned speech–tried from the time he was a little kid, for all the good it did him. It’s not being angry that’s important, it’s being angry about the right things. I told her, "Look at it from the Darwinian perspective. Anger is to make you effective. That’s its survival function. That’s why it’s given to you. If it makes you ineffective, drop it like a hot potato."
- Murray Ringold’s advice to his daughter in Philip Roth's I Married a Communist.

KENNETH BURKE HAD WHAT RALPH NADER called the "gift of outrage," (Nader, 2004) but his self-deconstructive comedic frame played havoc with its melodramatic expression. The dialectic of comedy versus melodrama was played out at the 1935 Communist Writer's Conference. Frank Lentriccia's reading of Burke's speech makes Burke the hero, despite Burke's own remorse in the wake of stinging criticism of the speech by fellow travelers. Years later, KB was to get it in the neck from Sidney Hook, now a fervent anti-communist. Thenceforward the dialectic was to take new form. Did Burke abandon Marxism for Method, as McGee and others have claimed? If so, was this a good or bad thing?3

Retrospectively, Burke made his share of egregious moral blunders during the tumultuous thirties.4 Yet Burke also seemed far in advance of his Marxist colleagues at the 1935 conference in his recognition of the need to channel outrage in a way that might win converts to his Marxist cause rather than alienating them.5 His Attitudes Toward History, published in 1937, also provides clues as to how unwarranted or excessive outrage might be kept in check by comedic self-examination while warrantable outrage might be given serviceable expression in the form of satiric "ideology critique." 5 Philip Roth's I Married a Communist provides a stunning example of such critique.

This paper addresses the question of how "Marxoid" intellectuals like Phillip Roth, like Frank Lentricchia, like the Burke of Attitudes Toward History, like those of us here [at the NCA convention] who seek a "Third Way" out of the excesses of “free market” capitalism and totalitarian communism might best reconcile the need to give effective expression to moral outrage with the need to contain and channel outrage by way of a self-deconstructive comedic stance. The paper approaches the question dialectically in three stages: first with an appreciative nod to Burke's comedic approach; second, with a brief note on Burke's method of dialectic and its relevance to the issues under consideration, third, by problematizing Burke's comedic approach in light of the need to give expression to warrantable outrage. Having thus posed the problem, I then propose dialectical ways out, differentiating between impulsive indignation unchecked by comedic irony, and moral outrage that follows upon comedic analysis and is expressed in a manner designed to win thoughtful adherence. As a model of the rhetorical practice here proposed the paper concludes  with Philip Roth's satiric critique of Richard Nixon's funeral service.

In Praise of the Comedic Approach

Were this a church I would urge all of you to rise and recite with me that famous passage from Book Four of the Burke Bible in which he admonishes us to give up our pretensions to superiority over others, pairing our virtue against their madness or badness. Humane enlightenment, says Burke in Attitudes Toward History, "can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy."6

I like these sentiments of Burke's. I see his call for humility as the great antidote to an energizing but often dangerous form of storytelling in which all good rests with one side, all evil with the other.

That form is melodrama. Populism has always required it, whether the enemy be Frank Capra's corrupt capitalist profiteers in Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Senator Bilbo's niggers and nigger-lovers. The Church has long used stylized, ritualized melodrama to propagate the faith, while nation-states have been no slouches at getting their minions to sacrifice for war. Melodrama again. Frank Capra's Why We Fight series was not much different in form from British, German and Soviet propaganda films in World War II, and probably not much different from the spin-doctoring on Kosovo coming out of Washington and Belgrade earlier this year.7

The obvious problem with melodrama is its excessive simplicity. All good on one side, all evil on the other. No in-betweens. The enemy’s leaders are devils incarnate; its followers are puppets and dupes. All of them are mad, bad, or sad, no doubt about it. We, meanwhile, have a mission to perform. Good must triumph and good will triumph, but victory will not be easy. The enemy is wily, clever, and will stop at nothing.  This justifies borrowing a page from their book (and theirs from ours). Each side exempts itself from moral standards it imposes upon others. After all, God is on our (their?) side.8

Burkeians should abhor melodrama. The enemy of understanding, including self-understanding. Drawing on Marx, Burke extended Freud's great insights about defense mechanisms. Property may be theft, as Marx claimed, but we are nevertheless all great protectors of what we take to be our property rights. These, said Freud (as read by Burke), begin with the ego, our most basic form of private property. From protection of the individual ego it is but a short step to protection of the national, or the ethnic, or the class, or the racial ego.9 Marx and Engels showed how ordinary people could get sucked into a ruling class ideology even against their own interests--although, as Burke observed, Marx's "science" of ideology could have profited from a bit more humble irony.10 Said Burke repeatedly, all of us are victims of self-denial, repression, mystification (by self and others)–of language itself. Yes, I realize that in “Poetic Categories” he writes wryly about the rhetoric of humble irony, but elsewhere–as in Four Master Tropes–he embraces it. So do I.

Comedy, Burke says in “Poetic Categories,” offers the maximum in “forensic complexity.” No hand of fate, no deus et machina, to intervene. Just people with their ego needs and foibles getting life terribly mixed up.  Critics/theorists usually juxtapose comedy to tragedy, but, given Burke’s special take on it in “Poetic Categories,” I think it is best seen in contrast to melodrama. Burke’s comedic frame is a way of undoing some of the damage wrought by melodrama.11

A Note on Burke's Method of Dialectics

The literary critic, Paul Hernardi, believes Burke has the answer to one of the great questions of our time: how to deconstruct without self-destructing? Hernardi's answer: Burke's humbly ironic comic frame.12

Hernardi links Burke's comic frame to his method of dialectics.13 Begin, says Burke, with a perspective, a way of seeing, and take it to the end of the line. Then, recognizing its limitations, juxtapose it against opposing perspectives--other "partial truths," as he calls them. Then see if you can find a perspective on perspectives--a meta-perspective--that honors the "sub-certainties" of each, perhaps reconciling them in such a way that what once seemed "apart from" now seems "a part of." Operating dialectically in this way should help advance consideration of the question. But keep in mind that the new, ironic perspective is itself but one way of seeing, itself limited for that reason, itself in need of a comic corrective. The method of dialectic is thus never-ending, and, indeed, Burke's own theories have the quality of taking you near to the top of a mountain, only to have you and him come tumbling down. Nothing is stable in Burke, nothing foundational. Indeed, as I shall argue next, there is a problem with the comedic frame, as Burke himself acknowledged.

Comic Irony and the Problem of Warrantable Outrage

When back in the seventies, I wrote that Burke’s method–his comedic frame–prevented the expression of warrantable outrage, he replied: “Bjeez! That guy’s on to me.” How do you warrant outrage if the people whose actions you object to are foolish rather than vicious? And if you don’t generate outrage, how can you mobilize people for action against Evil and in behalf of the Good?  The answer, it would appear, is that you can’t. Melodrama appeals for that very reason.15

At the 1984 Burke conference in Philadelphia,16 a number of us wrestled with that problem, Burke included. One camp insisted that Burke’s writings were replete with outrage and warrantably so. Burke had been uncharacteristically quiet during this exchange. But then he offered up a Zen-like story. Remember the doc he’d gone to see about a pain “that came and went and then came back again”? The doctor, memorialized in his poem, “The Momentary, Migratory Symptom,” had been something of a charlatan–charging him double for diagnosing his trouble. Burke had been outraged, and his blood pressure dangerously up, but then he decided to see if he could learn from that swindler. Sitting with his friend, Jack Daniels, he wrote out all the doc’s tricks. By the time of first light, he had the son of a bitch figured out. “And you know something, the outrage was gone and the blood pressure was way down.” Another conceded my point but insisted that Burke’s conversion of rage into comic irony or stoic resignation was the genius of his system. Said Trevor Melia, wouldn’t we all be better off without the zealots and fanatics of the world shouting their slogans of hate? If there is to be a better life, we had better be prepared to give up on our own claims to warrantable outrage.17

Well, maybe. But, then again, what about a Hitler or a Stalin, or as Ed Appel asked on the Burke-L listserv, what about a Slobodan Milosovic? Need we be zealots or fanatics ourselves to take action against zealots and fanatics? Writing on the issue of warrantable outrage in the July, 1986 issue of the Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter, William Rueckert defended Burke in claiming that “Burke is a critic, not a politician, and inquiry rather than action is his proper business.”  But the Burke of the 1935 Writers Congress insisted that criticism was a form of politics, and Burke’s own criticism–for example, of those on the dock in the Moscow show trials–was surely a form of action.

Let me synopsize. Melodrama energizes but its method is demagogic. It evokes righteous indignation, but not necessarily warrantable outrage. Comedy, as Burke characterizes it in “Poetic Categories,” is the antithesis of melodrama. It offers up the “maximum of forensic complexity.” But, in so doing, it converts villains into fools. And Burke’s method of humble, comic irony renders all of us into fools, thus greatly weakening the capacity of good people to stand up for what we believe. Surely there must be thought and expression that proceeds beyond humble irony. Hence the question: After humble irony, then what?

After Humble Irony, Then What?

My answer is to proceed intellectually from righteous indignation, through comedic self-examination, to warrantable outrage. Correspondingly, it is to move rhetorically from melodrama to high comedy to ideology critique.

The Intellectual Journey

Running through much of the Burke corpus is the sense of outrage as a primal emotion, in need of conversion into something more civilized and more serviceable. Shortly after the 1984 Burke conference, he reminded me in a letter (July 14, 1984) about a passage from the Herone Liddell sequel to his anti-novel, Toward a Better Life:  “The sword of discovery goes before the couch of laughter. One sneers by the modifying of a smart; and smiles by the modifying of a sneer. You should have lived twice, and smiled the second time.” Rueckert echoed this sentiment in the July, 1986 issue of the Burke Society newsletter. Said Rueckert, “‘outrage’ is not a very useful critical response and rage, in general, is debilitating. Critical inquiry may begin in outrage–and it often does–but it should not end there.”

There you have it: from primal outrage to the smile that modifies the sneer. Yet there surely must be in some cases–not all–a stage beyond the sneer of primal outrage and the smile of comedy. The Burke provides clues as to how outrage might be tamed if necessary but retained if warranted. Chapter Six of Attitudes Toward History provides the primary clue: "In sum, the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting. Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness. One would "transcend" himself by noting his own foibles" (p. 171)

Among those foibles are the impulses to primal outrage, and they are often shaped and reinforced by melodrama, an in the reporting by both sides in the Kosovo crisis. But Burke gives us the comedic tool to check and channel that anger. Practice discounting, he suggests in his "Dictionary of Pivotal Terms."(ATH, p. 244).18 Make allowance for the fact that things are not always as they seem.   Practice perspective by incongruity, he suggests in Permanence and Change. 19 recognizing, for example, that there is an ethic even in gangsterism and a hierarchical psychosis even in the most noble of organizations. Recognize that the same story can be told in many ways, he suggests repeatedly in the Grammar of Motives." Not only does language supply communicators with resources of ambiguity, so too the dramas that we are apt to condemn or condone are apt to look differently depending on our pentadic lenses and sense of scope. Want to cast Slobodan Milosovic as the sole enemy, the evil incarnate? Burke would have urged us, I think, to widen the circumference in our thinking about the Balkans, setting the ethnic cleansing of the Serbs alongside those of the Croations, for example, as a kind of control group. And I suspect Burke would have enjoined us to look at "ourselves"--i.e., those of us in the West who call ourselves humanitarians--to see whether we have not practiced in our pasts, or excused in our allies, the very atrocities committed in Kosovo by the Serbs.

Still, reading Burke's speech to the American Writers' Congress alongside the chapter on "Comic Correctives" in Attitudes Toward History, I don't get a sense that the humble Burke, the Burke who recognized that all of us are fools, was quite as unwilling to condemn as he earlier let on in his injunction to see usurious capitalists, for example, not as vicious but as mistaken.20 What remains consistent in Burke is his distaste for polemic--of melodrama. Reading "Comic Correctives," one gets a sense that the initial impulse to primal outrage needed to be checked, not that the passion that remained after the self-examination had been conducted needed also to be kept to oneself. Rather, that outrage, now a warranted outrage, needed more appropriate expression than was typically found in agitprop theater or in tracts urging Americans to think of themselves as "the masses," or as "the proletariat," or even as "the workers," when they already had a perfectly usable term for themselves: "We the people." This was the essence of Burke's "subversive" message to the American Writer's Congress."

The Artistic/Rhetorical Journey

Corresponding to the path from primal outrage through humble irony to warranted outrage, we need a rhetorical path from melodrama through high comedy to a rhetoric of outrage that plays well outside the church of the already convinced. For Burke, I think, one key to that rhetoric of outrage was a sense of balance. The notion of ambivalence, he says at the outset of "Comic Correctives," gets us to our main thesis with regard to propagandistic (didactic) strategy. We hold that it must be employed as an essentially comic notion, containing two-way attributes lacking in polemical, one-way approaches to social necessity. It is neither wholly euphemistic, nor wholly debunking--hence, it provides the charitable attitude toward people that is required for purposes of persuasion and cooperation. (ATH, p. 166)

The ultimate balance was to be found in high comedy, with its "maximum of forensic complexity," but Burke was not above utilizing the other comic arts, including those that "converted downwards," such as burlesque and satire. Here again, however, Burke sought a form of critique that was intellectually and rhetorically sophisticated. His idols were not those who personalized the enemy; rather they were the practitioners of what the Frankfurt School calledideology critique. These include psychoanalysts like Freud as well as the formulators of "economic psychoanalysis," such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Voltaire, Bentham, Marx and Veblen.

These social theorists were complexifiers, alive to error and not just evil. But, as Burke acknowledges in a prose that is uncharacteristically contorted, they never permitted themselves "to overlook the admonitions of even the most caustic social criticism." (ATH, 172).

What we have here is reluctant recognition of the value of satire, of burlesque, even of ridicule, provided that it has first been comically corrected and tested against the criterion of persuasiveness as well.Earned outrage, warrantable outrage, must be something more than righteous indignation; it must emerge out of Burke’s stage of comedic irony as something that demands the cry of “Thou Shalt Not” despite awareness of our own limitations; of our own foolishness.  Let me illustrate.

Philip Roth on Nixon's Funeral: An Exemplar

In Roth’s I Married a Communist, the comedy nearly concluded, Zuckerman’s (Roth’s) teacher, Murray Ringold, now ninety years old, reflects on the struggle between communists and anti-communists in America over the course of his adult life. Murray Ringold had been for Zuckerman the voice of temperance against the strident, melodramatic rhetoric of his brother, Ira Ringold, Zuckerman’s fallen hero.  In that cautionary role Murray Ringold had embodied Burke’s method of comedic irony. Yet out of that stage of comedy had come a highly sophisticated sense of outrage, as reflected in a biting critique of Nixon’s funeral, held three years earlier. I quote at length:

“But the whole funeral of our thirty-seventh president was barely endurable. The Marine Band and Chorus performing all the songs designed to shut down people’s thinking and produce a trance state: ‘Hail to the Chief,’ ‘America, ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag,” ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and, to be sure, that most rousing of all those drugs that make everybody momentarily forget everything, the national narcotic, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’...

“Then the realists take command., the connoisseurs of deal making and deal breaking, masters of the most shameless ways of undoing an opponent, those for whom moral concerns must always come last, uttering all the well-known, unreal, sham-ridden cant about everything but the dead man’s real passions. Clinton exalting Nixon for his ‘remarkable journey’ and, under the spell of his own sincerity, expressing hushed gratitude for all the ‘wise counsel’ Nixon had given him. Governor Pete Wilson assuring everyone that when most people think of Richard Nixon, they think of his ‘towering intellect.’ Dole and his flood of towering cliches. ‘Doctor’ Kissinger, high-minded, profound, speaking in his most puffed-up unegoistical mode–and with all the cold authority of that voice dipped in sludge–quotes no less prestigious a tribute than Hamlet’s for his murdered father to describe ‘our gallant friend.’ ‘He was a man, take him for all and all, I shall not look upon his like again.” Literature is not a primary reality but a kind of expensive upholstery to a sage himself so plumply upholstered, and so he has no idea of the equivocating context in which Hamlet speaks of the unequaled king. But then who, sitting there under the tremendous pressure of keeping a straight face while watching the enactment of the Final Cover–up, is going to catch the court Jew in a cultural gaffe when he invokes an inappropriate masterpiece?...

Who? Gerald Ford? Gerald Ford. I don’t ever remember seeing Gerald Ford looking so focused before, so charged with intelligence as he clearly was on that hallowed ground. Ronald Reagan snapping the uniformed honor guard his famous salute, that salute of his that was always half meshugeh, Bob Hope seated next to James Baker. The Iran-Contra arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi seated next to Donald Nixon. The burglar G. Gordon Liddy there with arrogant shaved head. The most disgraced of vice-presidents, Spiro Agnew, there with his conscienceless Mob face. The most winning of vice-presidents, Dan Quayle, looking as lucid as a button. The heroic effort made by the poor fellow: always staging intelligence and always failing All of them mourning platitudinously together in the California sunshine and the lovely breeze: the indicted and unindicted, the convicted and the unconvicted, and, his towering intellect at last at rest in a star-spangled coffin, no longer grappling and questing for no-holds-barred power, the man who turned a whole country’s morale inside out, the generator of an enormous national disaster, the first and only president to have gained from a hand-picked successor a full and unconditional pardon for all the breaking and entering he committed while in office.”  

Conclusion to the NCA Paper

In emulation of Burke's method of dialectic, this [NCA] paper has offered a Burkeian dialectic of its own. The opposed perspectives in this dialectic--its "partial truths"--were Burke's humbly ironic comic frame counterpoised against the need to stand up against perceived injustice. Its reconciliatory dialectical move was the recognition that outrage needn't be a primitive emotion, a knee-jerk response consistent with an overly simplistic, melodramatic view of the world. It could be a consequence of careful inquiry and mature judgment, and it could be expressed in ways serviceable to self and society. Murray Ringold's impassioned debunking of Nixon's funeral was one embodiment of that. Burke's "economic psychoanalysts," including Burke himself, provide other exemplars.

I expect that the major objections to this paper's argument will come from two opposed directions. Camp One will insist that the causes of "true" justice require melodrama; it is the poetics of the masses; that which mobilizes and energizes when action is needed and time is short. Oppose melodrama and you might as well oppose the daily doses of melodrama that got us into World War II and kept us in the battle during periods of great sacrifice. Oppose melodrama and you might as well have opposed the civil rights movement, for it too enacted on a daily basis a simplistic drama of good versus evil.

Camp Two might well maintain that my case for action in the name of warrantable outrage, as opposed to primitive rage, remains hopelessly vague about what a comically corrected outrage entails and thus provides rhetorical rationale for just about any action by any group that can claim to have first engaged in "self-examination." No doubt those who staged or subsequently supported the Stalin-engineered show trials could claim retrospectively to have conscientiously applied Burke's comic correctives but were caught up by the hysteria of the times.

Neither of these objections, however, undo the problems of melodrama or, by contrast, the problems of inaction born of the assumption that moral outrage of every kind is primal, primitive, and therefore in need of conversion into humble irony. Those of us on the left who value Burke's comedic approach still need to be asking: "After Humble Irony, Then What?"


The questions I raised at NCA in 1999 continued to trouble me. Hence, at the Villanova Burke conference in 2008 I raised them again, but this time as applied to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.[21] At Villanova and in subsequent e-mails I also had the opportunity of conversations with colleagues,[22] and to continue conversations begun on e-mail with Greg Desilet. I begin with the introduction to my Villanova paper:

What evidence must Burkeians require before denouncing the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq as “more than a mistake?” I ask this question as part of a larger inquiry into the possibilities within Burke’s comedic framework for expressions of warrantable outrage. Does the comic frame require us as Burkeians to join those who attribute the allegedly unanticipated  costs of the war to mere mistakes, whether  in conception, planning or execution? Might the comic frame even oblige us to conclude for now that the war is not yet a mistake? Or, given the enormity of the Bush administration’s transgressions— not just the great harm inflicted upon those we had pledged to help, but also the well documented patterns of public deception, the evidence of premeditation and collusion in bringing America and its allies into war under false pretenses, the cover-ups of illegal practices such as torture and the shifting of blame to underlings—with all that and more, are we not entitled, even obligated, to conclude from our moral accounting that the American-led invasion and its continuing occupation has been “more than a mistake”?

Following my presentation Ann George said she was struck by my jurisprudential criteria. Collusion, premeditation, secrecy, cover-ups, severity of consequences: these, she said were useful criteria in deciding whether an action was “vicious or mistaken.” Desilet had independently proposed the law tribunal as an exemplary model for hearing and weighing opposing views on questions of morality and justice. On this basis he had criticized as “unfortunate” my use of Murray Ringold’s satirical account of Richard Nixon’s funeral service:

This type of satire falls into the category of factional comedy. It has a definite target and it does nothing in terms of balance. It does not attempt to suggest how these “friends of Nixon” (or for that matter Nixon himself) may be seen as in any way “mistaken” in a sense that would evoke any tragic sympathy. None of these men are simple fools (although Quayle and Ford certainly “stress” that assumption). They believed in what they were doing (they had an ideology). And adequate “ideology critique” would require something more than satiric depiction or caricatures of who they are (and were). [23]

Desilet added:

In other words, your example (at least in its excerpt form) certainly arouses a measure of outrage, but in the absence of “perspective” gained by comparison or contrast with opposing “ideologies,” it should not serve to arouse “warrantable outrage” and warrantable means of collective censure. We need to see at least two sides of the argument, both presented in the fairest light, alongside the most penetrating critical exposure, in order to arrive at “warrantable outrage.” This…would not preclude laying out a thorough “debunking” of ideological shortcomings and showing how these shortcomings, when compared to shortcomings of opponent ideological stances, are, on the balance, “shorter” shortcomings.  [24]

I agree with Greg that my chosen satiric exemplar was unfortunate, especially given the dearth of details in my paper about the “high comedy” from whence it came. In retrospect John Stewart’s confrontational interview with finance guru Jim Cramer would have been preferable. [25] But interactions of this sort are rare. Sometimes balance must be achieved in other ways. Not always must the arguments be presented in their “fairest light” if they are open to challenge, as when Olbermann and Maddow on CNBC do their thing and O’Reilly and Hannity on Fox Cable News do theirs. [26]  

I agree too that something closer to the ideal (if there be just one) could be our judicial system, assuming terms and conditions of rough power parity between opposing voices. I would have liked, for example, to have seen George W. Bush and Dick Cheney face impeachment charges in which the opposing sides each gave strong voice to their positions. Then, in addition to evidence of wrongdoing, we might also have heard refutations, as well as exculpatory arguments. If nothing else, Bush and Cheney, or their defenders, could have argued that they were not the first to hear the calls of empire and American exceptionalism. Unfortunately, however, sitting presidents and vice-presidents from political parties in firm control of both houses of Congress, and with dependable political support from conservative Supreme Court judges, have never been impeached, let alone tried or convicted on impeachment charges. A model of the ideal must contend with the reality of power differentials.

As a consequence of my conversations with Desilet, I also became more critical of Burke’s comic frame. (I’m not sure that was his intention.)

1. The paradox of “foolishness.”

Said Desilet,

For Burke, it would seem we are “fools” because of our essentially flawed nature rather than essentially okay and “made to look foolish” because life’s circumstances leave us sufficiently blind that we often cannot avoid choosing wrongly. [27]

I don’t disagree with Greg about Burke. But note the paradox: if we are fated always toward foolishness, then this observation can be applied to itself, and, by extension, to the entire comedic perspective. And by further extension, I should add, to all systems of thought, Marxian and Freudian alike, which assume false consciousness but which nevertheless also assume that some among us can rationally contend with our own foolishness, even if it’s driven by unconscious forces.

2. The Problem of “Self-Reliance”

Said Desilet:

… “it comes down to a process of judgment, of going through the steps of melodrama to high comedy (this would be the same as high tragedy for me), to ideology critique…. But…everything here depends on that process of ‘self-examination.’”

Here I’m reminded of the criticism of Davy Crockett and the “go ahead” boys and the era of “manifest destiny.” Davy used to say: “make sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Trouble was, what counted as “self-examination” then, doesn’t count for much these days. Today we require a “deeper” degree of reflection. But how deep? [28]

Implicit in Desilet’s observation (and in Burke on some issues) is the assumption that we flawed human beings must rely on our own judgments. Why must we? The history of science teaches us the value of communal judgments under conditions that reduce the chances of error or bias: hence, for example, the value of “blind” reviews of journal submissions. Airlines have similarly become wary of “Captainitis,” the assumption that the lead pilot necessarily knows best. (Cialdini, 2009) On the assumption that “even the Captain” is prone to error, airlines now mandate critical review of the captain’s judgments. Much the same rule now applies to the operating room where even the lowliest attendant is encouraged to question authority before and during surgery. Burke’s metaphor of intellectual history as extended conversation is pertinent here: we learn from others and not just our own introspection.

3. “Vicious and/or Mistaken”?

In retrospect this “both-and” should have alerted Desilet and me to a fundamental problem with Burke’s celebrated opposition between “vicious” and “mistaken.” One can be both. Indeed, Burke said as much in his reading of “Hitler’s ‘Battle.” The issue is pointedly addressed in essays arguing that America’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq were “more than a mistake.” (See for example Ivie, Milne, Powers, and Simons, 2008) Taken together, the two terms aptly describe the melodramatic crisis  rhetoric of George W. Bush & Co.(Anker, Simons)

Summary and Conclusions

In emulation of Burke's method of dialectic, my NCA 1999 paper offered a Burkeian dialectic of its own. The opposed perspectives in this dialectic--its "partial truths"--were Burke's humbly ironic comic frame counterposed against the need to stand up against perceived injustice. Its move toward dialectical reconciliation of the two was the recognition that outrage needn't be a primitive emotion, a knee-jerk response consistent with a simplistic, melodramatic view of the world. It could be a consequence of careful inquiry and mature judgment, and it could be expressed in ways serviceable to self and society. Burke's "economic psychoanalysts," including Burke himself, provide numerous exemplars.

Do I stand by the 1999 paper? No, not entirely. Irony of ironies, my conversations at Villanova and e-mail exchanges with Greg Desilet have left me more critical than before about the assumptions undergirding Burke’s comedic frame and about the possibilities of dialectical reconciliation between it and the need on occasion for expressions of warrantable outrage.

If nothing else I’m absolutely convinced that “vicious” and “mistaken” are not antinomies. Just think: All these years we who’ve assumed that they were mutually exclusive have been “Burking” up the wrong tree.



*Herbert W. Simons is Professor Emeritus of Communication at Temple University and co-founder of the Kenneth Burke Society. He wishes to thank Editor Andrew King and four anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on successive drafts of the paper.

[1] But for its new endnotes, this article is but a cleaned up version of a paper by the same title which I presented at the National Communication Association (NCA) convention in November, 1999. That paper was long in the making and has since been commented upon by a number of   interested colleagues, none of whose encouragements and excellent suggestions for revision have overcome my doubts about the path I have taken in addressing the paper’s central problematic. If anything, an attempted collaboration with Ed Appel and Greg Desilet on a “new and improved” warrantable outrage paper have alerted me to new problems with my 1999 paper and with Burke’s comedic method. In 1999 I sought to reconcile Burke’s comedic method with the need to give public expression to warrantable outrage. Now, as an ironic consequence of our collaboration, and of additional contributions by Les Bruder, John Hatch, and Camille Lewis to the larger conversation about Burke’s “Poetic Categories,” I’m further convinced that my approach can at best advance consideration of the issues; it cannot resolve them. Subsequent endnotes (as opposed to the original paper’s footnotes) should help clarify what I mean.
[2] Roth, 1998
[3] See Simons and Melia, Appendix, for transcripts of Burke’s speech and commentaries on it at the Writer’s Congress as well as Frank Lentricchia’s reading of it.
[4] On Burke’s blunders, see George and Selzer, 144-7
[5] Lentriccia is persuasive on this point.
[6] ATH, 41. See also “Debunking” in PLF.
[7] See Gregory Desilet’s Our Faith in Evil  for a trenchant analysis of melodrama, including war propaganda. See also Schwarze for a defense of melodrama in the service of the environmental movement.
[8] See Simons, From Post 9/11…
[9] Burke “Traditional Principles”
[10] “Traditional Principles”
[11] ATH, 39-41
[12] See Appel, for example.
[13] Hernardi
[14] “Four Master Tropes” is Appendix D of GoM. See also Rhetorical Legacy.
[15] My missive, a brash one-pager entitled “Burke Synopsized,” was passed on to Burke by my good friend and Burke mentor, Trevor Melia, Little did I know that Burke was co-teaching a course with Melia at the time on Burke. The “synopsis” also praised Burke as a “maker of scenes” in every sense of that phrase.
[16] The “Legacy of Kenneth Burke, Temple University’s Fifth Annual Conference on Discourse Analysis (co-sponsored by SCA), featured the creation of the Kenneth Burke Society and a wonderful banquet toast to Burke by K.H. Jamieson: “Langauge may do our thinking for us but it cannot do our drinking for us.”
[17] The issue came to a head at a late-night drinkfest, Burke in attendance. Phil Tompkins took issue with my contention that Burke’s method prevented outrage’s legitimate expression. Burke’s commentaries earlier that day had hardly been free of outrage, he observed. (True, I acknowledged, but these expressions were inconsistent with his Method.) Moreover, said Tompkins, Burke has not shrunk from naming and confronting Evil throughout his career; why, the very responsibility for making moral judgments is built into his action/motion distinction. (True again, I conceded, but Burke’s Devils are typically made into Fools. Gang kids are clothed as pious churchmen. Even Hitler is cast as a Christian of sorts. Occasionally, Burke has declared this or that to be counter to nature, but these Scenic smugglings-in of scientific entitlements are counter-Burke.)
[18] Here, ironically, Burke pays tribute to Sidney Hook for having analyzed "the apparently 'contradictory' statements of Marx by such 'discounting.'"
[19] P&C.
[20] See GoM. See also Blakesley. At the Villanova triennial, Ann George evidenced this point with reference to several of Burke’s essays from the thirties. See Works Cited.
[21] My interests in post 9/11 rhetoric and the war in Iraq are expressed in the lead essay for an Rhetoric and Public Affairs issue which I guest-edited on Rhetoric and the War in Iraq. (Simons 2008)
[22] I’m especially grateful to Ann George who chaired the seminars I attended on Burke in the 30s.
[23] Desilet e-mail, May 20, 2008
[24] Desilet e-mail, May 20, 2008
[25] See a transcript of the interview at: www.vancouversun.com/Business/Transcript+Daily+show+interview+betwen+Stewart+Cramer/1386933/story.html
[26] See Boyer’s critique of Olbermann’s polemics.
[26] Simons, Rhetorical History
[27] Desilet, e-mail, May 20, 2008
[28] Desilet, e-mail, May 20, 2008


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---. "re: KB's Stalinism." Message to KB listserv. 6/7/2008
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--- "From Post-11 Melodrama to Quagmire in Iraq.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs. 10.1 (2007): 183-94.
--- "Iraq, Kenneth Burke, and the Issue of Warrantable Outrage." Paper presented at the Villanova Triennial Burke Conference, Villanova Pa, June 30, 2008
--- "Burke, Marx, and the Problem of Warrantable Outrage." Paper presented at the NCA Convention, Chicago, November, 1999
--- Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter, July, 1986
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"Scapegoating the Big (Un)Easy: Melodramatic Individualism as Trained Incapacity in K-VILLE; by Herbert Simons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.