“The Burke I Knew”: An Interview with Professor James Klumpp

Andy King

King: Can you tell our readers how long you have been part of the Burke Society?

James Klumpp photoJ.K.: I was, as they say, there at the founding. I attended the first meeting set up by Herb Simon in Philadelphia in 1984. When the formal organization was completed (by 1987) I joined the organizational structure on the board of directors, and served on the conference planning committee through the 1999 conference that David Blakesley and I planned. Along the way I chaired the Eastern Communication Association branch and the Speech Communication Association branch. So, I have been pretty much continually involved.

King: You and I have been at this for a long time. We remember when Burke was a rather marginal figure in departments of English and Communication. Recently he has become fully mainstream and scholars at the recent Southern Communication convention complained about his hegemony. What do you make of all this fame and expansion and does it surprise you?

J.K.: In the introduction of a special issue honoring him in the Southern Communication Journal after his death I referred to Burke’s ideas now being “the air that we breathe.” That affirms your idea that he is fully mainstream and more. It also explains the hegemony. You and I remember the time when, if your criticism looked anything like a Burkean criticism, the editor demanded that you justify the use of Burke. I think that today the kind of orthodox demand we encountered has been subordinated to a demand for insight, but perhaps that is just me not recognizing the new orthodoxy.

For those in communication, Burke came along at a time when contextualism was taking control of our criticism. We were participating in the linguistic turn that was happening throughout Western intellectual circles. The difference was that for us, the linguistic turn elevated what we studied to the central place in human action. That was unusual heights for rhetoricians, who had been toiling with the “harlot of the arts” for millennia. We were fortunate because Burke gave us such a well-rounded statement of contextualist motive. After a false start in the early 1950s, by the late 1960s we were not only following Burke, but leading him to new insights.

As far as the hegemony is concerned, I can fill out your story. A number of years ago I was sitting in a panel at the Eastern Communication Association that dealt with culture. I can no longer remember exactly what the topic was, but I remember the panelists attacking Kenneth Burke because he had nothing to say about culture. I was incredulous. I prepared my scathing rebuttal for the question and answer period. I was ready to point to Permanence and Change and A Rhetoric of Motives, and surely A Grammar of Motives. But as I listened on, I realized what was happening. I remembered back to those of us attempting to loosen up the orthodoxy of Neo-Aristotelianism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We launched some attacks on Aristotle that, no matter how fair to the neo-Aristotelians, were certainly unfair to Aristotle. We were attacking Aristotle and his “failings” as a way to make room for our voice in a hegemonic discussion. I realized as that panel proceeded that this was what was happening here, that these students were trying to make room for their voice by attacking the orthodox. Is that orthodoxy charge justified? I don’t think so because I believe the inherent power of permanence and change will always give power to new voices. To the extent that by acknowledging hegemony we give room to those voices, I am all for acknowledging that it is Burke’s ideas that today compose the taken-for-granted.

But you ask if I am surprised. No. From where I sit contextualism was a powerful and important move that has unleashed much understanding and much good on the world. This has led to its dominance.

King: Did Burke think of himself as a contextualist? I do not remember him using the term. Do you think there are keys to understanding Burke as a contextualist?

J.K.: No, I do not recall him using the term either. But, Burke was not one to embrace “category terms.” He didn’t mind “agro-bohemian” but obviously that phrase is half metaphor and half perspective by incongruity and suitably playful. He deflected the label “Marxist” and “Freudian” by admitting to being a “Marxoid” and a “Freudoid.” He thought of our question of whether he was “post-modern” as unimportant and uninteresting to him.

But, of course, labels are important and interesting not because of the fences they include people in but because of the influences that they track. They entail narratives of development that are important ways of perceiving the “launches” that create order like the ones on that photograph at MOMA that he refers to in the Introduction to A Grammar of Motives.

I believe the best explanation of contextualism is Stephen Pepper’s (World Hypotheses). Using Pepper’s scheme captures the formalism (formism) of the classical tradition in rhetorical theory and the mechanism of Neo-Aristotelianism and the dominant social science of the 20th century as well as the contextualism of the linguistic turn. There are times when Burke is moving toward an organicism as Pepper defines the intellectual identity, but for most of his life he demonstrates how a contextualist thinks.

King: Do you reckon Burke would be pleased by the growth of the Burke industry?

J.K.: Yes, but not with your metaphor. I truly believe that Burke believed the formation of the Kenneth Burke Society was one of the highlights of his life. He believed it affirmed his intellectual influence. He cared a great deal about his ideas having a life beyond his own biological life. He wrote to Cowley one time about the search for their legacy. So, he would be very pleased.

King: Some Burke scholars believe that he left us a coherent body of theory. Others, like our mutual friend, Robert L. Scott, see Burke as a kind of excitable polymath who always developed his ideas unevenly and invented under the pressure of events and publication deadlines. Do you line up in either camp or do you have a different take on Burke, the “unsystematic system builder” as Howell called him during a long-ago NCA debate?

J.K: All these folks are right. He was an excitable polymath, first and foremost. Good contextualists are. At the time Burke was emerging in our discipline (Communication), there was a political (more, I think, than intellectual) struggle between the humanists and the social scientists. In intellectual terms that struggle was between the domination of the mechanistic metaphor for social science and the emerging contextualists in the humanities. Of course, the same struggle was going on in the social sciences for contextualists trying to earn traction for their approaches to understanding human action. As a result, the question of whether there is a “coherent body of theory” led to a search for a theory in the theory-practice mode of mechanistic social science. Theory means something different to a contextualist,, more akin to “I have a theory that . . .” This notion is grounded in interpretation rather than in the primary/secondary categories of mechanism. Stable interpretation does require categories, and the vocabulary that provides those categories is a cousin of theory as the mechanist sees it, but with pragmatic rather than referential tests for the theories’ usefulness. And, there is no doubt that Burke has provided us an abundant jargon with which interpretation may proceed. Coherence, for a contextualist like Burke, does not lie in the theory however. It lies in the interpretation. So, what we would say is that Burke has provided us a body of work—vocabulary and categories—that permits coherent interpretation of the moments of our lives. Contextualism has above all a texture of probes in which the things being interpreted and the interpretation must interpenetrate. Thus, it is unsystematic, but informed by the system. I like Howell’s phrase: “unsystematic system builder.”

King: What is your favorite Burke piece?

J.K.: “Rhetoric of Hitler’s 'Battle.'"

King: There is still no consensus on whether Burke’s pentad is a metaphor or a literal entity. I know that beginning in the 1980’s with the advent of post—modernism a lot of scholars refused to accept Burke’s apparent foundationalism. Is the metaphoric pentad a point of view for you or is it the only point of view? Or do you consider it rubbish. Burke made a number of statements that suggest his belief in a relentless material world. “You better not put your out house above your well. You will be poisoned and it doesn’t matter what you think about the matter. Mother Nature is a bitch,” he stated. This quarrel still arouses
fury and some anti-foundationalists have actually abandoned Burkean studies because of it.

J.K.: The pentad is a vocabulary for characterizing the variety of points of view. It is utilitarian and it is a vocabulary. It belongs to the realm of methodology, stretched perhaps into epistemology, but definitely not ontology.

As you present them foundationalism and anti-foundationalism are dichotomous terms. If so, Burke was neither. Those who label Burke a “linguistic realist” have it about right, I think. We forced him to emphasize the material by using him—incorrectly for certain in his view—as the base of our nominalism. When we would say “It is all language!” he would strenuously object. He would do so with some turn of phrase such as the one you quote; drawn beautifully, I might add, from his agro-bohemianism. But he was a good distance from the referentialist assumptions that are inevitably a part of a foundationalism. For Burke, the material was “recalcitrant” to our efforts to impose interpretation; but this was important because we are interpreters. Interpretation is not right or wrong, it is the essence of motivation. No foundationalist would cotton to this. But Burke is pragmatic through and through. Interpretation must deal pragmatically with all sorts of reality, including the material. I usually prefer to say the world is not fluid but sticky. Change happens but within the dialectic of permanence and change. At the heart of this is the imperative of “both/and.” If foundationalism and anti-foundationalism are dichotomous rather than dialectic terms, then “both/and” precludes either side from claiming Burke.

King: In your justly famous “Burkean Social Hierarchy and the Ironic Investment of Martin Luther King,” you wrote that you could not find any strong proof in Burke that he believed in the inevitability of hierarchy. That piece got several people’s goat (I can think of three Sociologists). I know that William Bailey angrily called the piece “wish fulfillment” and “a Leftist apology for the old man.” Those strong reactions are still evoked when my conservative graduate students read the piece. What is your reaction and have your beliefs about Burke and hierarchy changed?

J.K.: Well, that is a misinterpretation of my point. What I said was that I could find no place in all of Burke’s corpus where he makes the empirical argument that social hierarchy is inevitable. I believe the reasoning here is critical because the dismissal of Burke on the basis of a mythical symptomatic reasoning deprives those repulsed by the claim of important insight.

My argument in the piece is long and complex. I do not wish to repeat it in toto here. But perhaps with a few words I can urge our readers to invest in the full argument again.

Most of the people who are bothered by the idea that hierarchy might be inevitable are bothered because they are egalitarians who value the possibility that a social order can feature equality. Obviously, such people would have to reject Burke if his argument was empirical, and if it were about social order. But, in my view, Burke believes that social order is constructed through language. Those constructing, maintaining, and destroying social orders do so by exploiting resources of language. Hierarchic qualities of language are among those resources.

Burke’s line of reasoning does not begin in a survey of human social forms. Rather, it begins in the nature of human language and its influence on social order. Burke argues that human language is based on such notions as selection and attention that elevate some over other. A linguistic utterance refers to something, and in doing so it selects from among all the things it could refer to and directs attention. The result is that something is lifted above something else. Also, Burke says that human speech is inherently moral. Thus, the sense that some things are good and others are bad is a sense of hierarchy inherent in language. Then, we get to the drama of human relations in which humans make their societies with the resources of language. The hierarchical resources of language are there, ready to be called upon in asserting ideals or grading the world around. Now the principle of hierarchy is there to be invoked. But the principle does not dictate a particular hierarchy. Egalitarians, indeed, assert a hierarchy that elevates equality over other values instantiated in social gradations. Thus, the inevitability of hierarchy is not for Burke true because he has looked at all societies, cultures, and communities and never seen one without hierarchy; it is true because hierarchies are established and maintained in linguistic acts that inevitably through selection and evaluation elevate some things over others. What Burke says, in fact, is that the principle of hierarchy is inevitable, not that social hierarchy is so.

King: David Cratis Williams and I debated you and Jim Chesebro at the 1992 Southern and 1993 Burke Conference in Virginia. Do you remember those debates over Burke’s status as a modern or postmodernist thinker. David and I were told it was going to be an informal debate but when we faced you, we discovered that you and Jim had been provided with pieces of evidence. We were lacking in formal evidence and were crushed in 1992 debate. In the 1993 debate in Virginia both sides were steeped to the lips in boiler plate evidence and the result was a bare knuckle affair. David Williams claimed victory of our side but Jim averred that your side won on body blows and knockdowns. Do you remember those debates?

J.K.: I don’t remember that debate that way. You may be confusing me with a much more effective debater. But let me address the question of the debate: Burke’s postmodernism. I earlier addressed Burke’s attitude toward labels. I tend to be on his side. But there can be no doubt that he and whomever you wish to label a “postmodernist” were playing in the same sandbox. I think it has turned out two decades later that the label “postmodern” has not weathered very well. The years have eroded rather than added to its ability to focus our gaze. But the debate at its best sent us to inquiring into underlying intellectual commitments of Burke and others. That was a good thing.

By the way, long after that debate I came across something else that I believe colored Burke’s attitude toward our interest in this question. In a letter to Cowley in 1945, right after A Grammar of Motives had come out and long before the postmodern question was prescient, he wrote the following: “But I suppose, despite the extent of the effort, we can look forward to the usual reception: i.e., my noble colleagues will pilfer bits here and there, and scrupulously give credit to dead Frenchmen or half-dead Harvard professors.” Does that sound like our debate or what? This certainly speaks to your question about systemness. He believed that Grammar was a coherent statement and the process of burking it and associating it with the ideas of others in a kind of “Who is he really?” was offensive. I think that was some of his reaction to our postmodern debate. He just thought it was a labeling exercise that would diminish rather than enhance our understanding the world he saw.

King: On a lighter note, what was your favorite memory of Burke?

J.K.: I have so many. Not so much because when I first met him he was so far advanced in age that you knew each moment was precious, but more because he was a character. He enjoyed life so much. Those eyes did twinkle. And he fully embraced life with intellectual development. He would engage my students with all the energy of Socrates and he would never forego setting me straight. I can answer that question you asked on foundationalism so fully because I was one of those anti-foundationalists that he pounded.

But my favorite memory is a dinner at the Glass Onion in Lincoln, NE, in 1984 when Burke and Richard McKeon attended a conference that Jim Ford and I sponsored at the University of Nebraska. It was their last meal together. McKeon died within the year. It was a combination of remembering their time together on the subway going to Columbia, their time together since including Burke’s time at Chicago at McKeon’s invitation, and a mutual praise society. Here were two of the greatest humanists of the 20th century enjoying their final dance. It was a privilege to buy that dinner.

King: What was your favorite Burke conference and why?

J.K.: With absolutely no hesitation it was New Harmony. I have always thought that New Harmony is the perfect place for a conference about an agro-bohemian. I have thought that going back there every three years would be something akin to visiting Valhalla. But I have lost that argument. It was obviously my favorite first of all because of the place and its appropriateness. But also because Burke was there. We had to budget his time at his advanced age, but he absolutely delighted in the attentions of my graduate students and he reveled at the attention to his work.

The certainness with which I respond is not to disparage the other conferences. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind of the value of our triennial gatherings. They have significantly deepened our understanding of the intellectual content of Burke’s work. This is so because of the generally high quality of our work. My graduate students always say this is where they go to meet their footnotes. And the conferences defy the academy’s organizational caste system by bringing scholars together across disciplinary lines. Finally, they humanize Burke, not only because of the excellent historical work that is part of our research, but because of the participation of Michael Burke, Julie Whitaker, and the Chapins. There are those who charge that the conferences (and even the Burke Society) are a kind of hero worship blinded to intellectual debate. On the contrary. No doubt fond recollections of the human Burke may on the surface appear to be such worship. But those who see this as our activity must have let it keep them away from the conference. The intense critical encounters of the seminars and programs, whether biography or not, makes the conference vital to energizing the faculty of insight that so many have developed from reading Burke. It is this intensification of energy that I have enjoyed and that should bring others to the conferences.

Dr. James Klumpp, a senior Burkean scholar, is a professor at the University of Maryland.