Wess Essay

I want to comment in this post on the first part of Wess's essay, Representative Anecdotes in General, and then get around later to his application in the second half, where he offers Yamashita's novel as an appropriately representative anecdote for Burkean ecocriticism.

Wess is surely right on when he labels dramatism a realism. Walter Fisher and some others published an article in CSSJ decades ago advancing this theme. Bernard Brock modifies that characterization appropriately in his introduction to KENNETH BURKE AND CONTEMPORARY EUROPEAN THOUGHT, where he calls Burke a critical realist. Critical realism adds action, judgment, and interpretation on the part of the symbol-user to the mix, so as to distinguish it from representative realism (ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY, Vol. 7, pp. 77-83). I especially like Wess's reference to the real effects symbols impose on the sheer brute materials of the world as it is (GM), the recalcitrant (P&C) reality Burke emphasizes. I found most congenial, also, Wess's use of the term link[s] to underscore the relationship between the synecdochic part by which language refers to the whole that is beyond the capacity of symbols to represent with any thoroughness. I would interpret the notion of link by way of adjectives like referential and ostensive as fitting descriptives of Burke's philosophy of language (not interlocks with). Languarge directs the attention (Terministic Screens, LASA) of persons, often toward specific phenomena, as well as away from other parts of reality.

I personally prefer to call Burke an interventionist realist, after the distinction Ian Hacking makes in his book REPRESENTING AND INTEVENING. Language intervenes in the real world (take note of artifacts and the morally purposive action that produces them), and, reciprocally, the real world intervenes in language, forcing the symbol-user, often so tardily and reluctantly (PERMANENCE is so darn hard to CHANGE sometimes, if not most times), to modify her or his terminology. Burke's extreme example of the human bird who jumps off a cliff in P&C, then matures his descriptives of himself after the fact, comes to mind.

So Burke is not a constructivist in any pristine definition of the term, nor thoroughly Saussurean, like Derrida, with his dictum that there is nothing beyond the text, or Jameson, whose Prison House of Language metaphor Wess appropriately contrasts with Burke's position. Consistent with Wess's take in this essay, we could, I believe, denominate Burke as proto-postmodern in his early period, or quasi-postmodern, taking into account his career as a whole. Burke serves nicely as a bridge between traditional views of language and the Gadamer types, with, I would suggest, more of a pronounced tilt toward the postmodern than the traditional, much more.

(Parenthetically, I would assert that Burke's philosophy is not only realistic. It is also pragmatic, idealistic, materialistic, and mystical. It is, in my view, a mata-system that encomasses all the philosophic schools Burke teats of in the GRAMMAR.)

To be continued.

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Wess's Essay

All that having been said about Burke's quite untraditional conception of language and Wess's careful and estimable positioning of Burke's philosophy in the first section of this essay, I still get a little antsy when Burke uses language---like representative anything---that opens him up to charges of being a Cartesian representationalist. That's exactly the claim John Stewart and Karen Williams made in a paper presented at NCA in Atlanta in 1991, later published as a chapter in Stewart's book, ARTICULATE CONTACT (SUNY, Albany). Stewart and Williams were tendentiously selective about what they put into and left out of their Burkean bibliography. The LASA essay What Are the Signs of What was, for instance, nowhere to be found, as I recall. That treatise most surely undermines a case made for Burke as any kind of positivist, empiricist, or scientist. One does not have to lean just on Burke's late material, however, to subvert Stewart and Williams' interpretation.

Even Burke's notions about a positive level of language (GM, pp. 183-184) could be misconstrued by the inattentive. One could easily skim over Burke's part-deconstruction of the concept right near the end of the passage in question in which he propounds the idea: A skeptic might offer reasons to believe that such science is less positive than its apologists take it to be. Particularly one might ask himself [sic] whether the terms for RELATIONSHIPS among things are as positive as the names for the things themselves. But we need not attempt to decide that question here; we need only note that there is a basic terminology of perception grounded on sensation, memory, and imagination (GM, p. 14).

Necessary qualifications being duly made, Burke's offerings about positive terminologies, as well as his inclusion of metonymy among his Four Master Tropes as vehicles for helping us discern the truth about something, should remain readily at hand in our toolbox.

And we note that Burke's theory of the representative anecdote has been put to good interpretive use by exegetes like Barry Brummett, who almost single-handedly spawned a whole subgenre of Burkean criticism. Bryan Crable has even suggested that the representative anecdote forms the very basis of dramatism itself (QJS, August, 2000).

Anyway, as long as we're careful to separate representational realism from the critical realism or interventionist realism that seems to distinguish Burke's take on language, our employment of Burke's representative anecdote as interpretive and critical tool holds great promise. In the LASA chapter, when read side-by-side with the section in P&C on Interrelation of Analogy, Metaphor, Abstraction, Classification, Interest, Expectancy, and Intention, (pp. 103-107), Burke suggests that words are too airy, ethereal, and diaphanous---abstract, that is---to represent any particular thing in the real world, that, indeed, we should reverse the equation (persective by incongruity?) and view the thing as representing the word, rather than vice versa.

We might summarize the relationship this way, using the terminology of P&C:

In the service of a common interest, intention, expectancy, purpose, or value that functions as a unifying, metaphorical, teleological perspective, or by way of analogy between disparate beings, entities, or events (analogy, not synonymy), symbols generate the perception of similar strains in dissimilar events, leading to the classification of those events together in a common, idealized, essentialized abstraction.

On to Wess's use of Yamashita's novel as representative anecdote for Burkean ecocriticism.

To be continued.

Wess's Essay

In addition, I like the decentering of humanity Wess makes with his choice of ecocriticism over enviro-criticism---not merely the word choice, but more especially the apt explanation he gives for favoring that terminology. I'm enlightened, also, by the way Wess explicates the third component he looks for in any ecocritical anecdote: creativity. His construction of Burke's seemingly strange preference for D. H. Lawrence's notion that the growing crops make the sun shine is clear, convincing, and pointedly fitting for the case he's making. When the totality works . . . by the ecological causality of interdependent parts, Wess says, 'linear causation, as model or paradigm, must critically give way. The poetic realism of P&C supersedes the scientific realism of Newtonian physics.

In his analysis of this creativity, Wess ties together well the selection of human action and the natural selection of nonsymbolic reality. Their interrelationship generates a hybrid nature or counter-nature, Wess's fourth anecdotal component, that yields new givens, new constraints that are in part self-inflicted, as well as unforeseen and unintended. The irony in humankind's natural (read: symbolic) propensity toward further exploiting this novel set of resources technologically---in tar-baby fashion---is lost on neither Burke nor Yamashita. It inaugurates a little Apocalypse Now that will likely broaden, widen, and deepen as further technological fixes are creatively conjured in serial stages.

It all reminds me of the answer Burke gave to a question I asked him at the 1987 NCA Convention in Boston. I queried: What, in your view, are humankind's long-term chances? Burke's answer came quickly and vigorously: 50-50.


Wess's Essay

I now turn to the second and climactic section of Wess's essay on Yamashita's novel as an appropriate representative anecdote for ecocriticism in general, and Burkean ecocriticism in particular.

First off, I like Wess's acknowledgment that representative anecdotes for anything are eminently negotiable, that no one exemplar will necessarily stand out from all other candidates as the perfect nominee. I've felt for some time that an excellent representative anecdote for drama---maybe even an ultimate anecdote, if we think of perfection in the sense of Greek philosophy (immanentized) rather than Christian philosophy (transcendentalized)---would be the honor killing in the Muslim Middle East that Nicholas Christoph, for one, has written about recently in the NEW YORK TIMES. So-called honor killings, apparently still very much in vogue in parts of that culture, involve the murder of female rape victims by a brother or some other male relative. Such a sacrificial hit supposedly redeems the family's good name, expiates the guilt incurred by that moral outrage. It makes for such a pristine example of drama, a ritual strategy of sacrifice to redeem sin and guilt, because it is so thoroughly drained of any pragmatic or legal justification whatsoever. It makes no sense at all. The victim is completely innocent. The guilty party goes scott free. The violated family member serves as arbitrary substitute for the criminal aggressor via a most perverted, indeed inverted, logic.

How this ritual might beat child sacrifice as representative anecdote for drama requires futher explanation I don't want to pursue just now.

Anyway, Wess argues for the probable superiority of Yamashita's scenario to Burke's Helhaven essays as a representative anecdote for ecocriticism. It expresses four themes highlighted in Burke Wess says make it so exemplary: technology, apocalypse, creativity, and counter-nature. Wess makes a good case, I believe, and, in the process, explicates these themes with great subtlety and clarity. I would argue that apocalypse in the Yamashita sense is present in Burkie's parable, but only implicitly. Burke foregrounds the haven on the moon, not the hell that presumably exists on earth for the great majority of less-well-healed unfortunates that can't escape to the life of artificial bliss Burke describes. Yamashita appears to focus on the catastrophe the unintended consquences of compulsive technology have produced. Her narrative faces that eventuality head on.

In addition, the metaphorical value of the Matacao plastic, a subterranean substance---generated by the myriad junkyards humankind's throwaway industrialism and cult of new needs has fostered---epitomizes in visual terms the eco in ecology, the innerconnectiveness of all things, artifactual and natural. It ostensibly snakes around the whole wide world, surfacing for further human exploitation, ironically, in the Amazonian rainforest. And its commercial use serves to underscore further the compulsive nature of man and woman's terminological fit: our human tendency to compound our technological depradations via new, resourceful, and naively optimistic technological cures.

Trained incapacity anyone?

I hope to get back to some further themes in Wess's paradigmatic essay later.');

'Wess's Essay', 'In my previous post, I made reference to a column by Nicholas Kristof, not Christoph. And I meant interconnectiveness, not whatever wayward spelling I may have conjured up on the spur of the moment.

There are lots of other neat touches in Wess's superb essay. His follow up on the distinction Burke makes between Christian futurism and scientific futurism, to the benefit of the Christian concept, is so apropos and so Burkean. As Burke says in Why Satire, and Wess reproduces in Note 4, Even now, the kingdom of Helhaven is within you. Yes, that future is already here for me, in miniature, in my bottled water in the cellar way, in my house high on a hill above the flood plain of the Conestoga River, in the distance I've put between myself and Tornado Alley and the Hurricane Charleys of the U.'S. Amerrican Southeast, in the conspicuous absence from my neighborhood of polluting refineries, factory farms, and generating plants. Whatever analogue to Burke's Helhaven actually eventualizes down the line, it will climax an incremental development, not mark a sudden, chasmic leap across some deep divide. It's very much present in our personal lives, for those of us with, or above, a middle-class lifestyle. In addition, we are all complicit in its production and fruition, as we merrily drive our cars, overconsume so-called goods we don't really need, and discard our refuse we don't know where to whatever long-term detriment to the interconnected state of things.