Book Review: Burke, War, Words

M. Elizabeth Weiser. Burke, War, Words. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008.

Reviewed by Ryan McGeough, Louisiana State University

Volumes of Burkean scholarship are devoted to one of two purposes: the study and application of Burke’s writings, and the study of Burke himself. In Burke, War, Words, M. Elizabeth Weiser seeks to transcend (in the Burkean sense) these two camps of scholarship—exploring the necessary relation of Burke’s ideas in A Grammar of Motives within the scene of war in which he wrote. Carrying on in the tradition of Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village and Kenneth Burke in the 1930s, Weiser carefully explores Burke’s various communications with his contemporaries throughout the 1930s and 40s. Where she seeks to differ from past works on Burke is in her method of “rhetoricizing dramatism.” This method asks for a historicizing that recognizes dramatism as both shaped by Burke’s conversations throughout the writing of GM, as well as responding to a scene of war. In rhetoricizing dramatism, we are to recognize it as both a response and an exhortation. By (re)placing Burke within his conversations with the Communist Party, the Old Left, and the literary figures of his time, as well noting his recognition that the world around him was slowly marching back to war, Weiser suggests it becomes possible to better understand Burke’s aspiration Ad Bellum Purificandum.

Organizing her chapters by pentadic terms, Weiser begins Burke, War, Words with a look at Burke’s scene. Noting that Jack Selzer and Ann George “covered extensively Burke’s early career in their invaluable Kenneth Burke in the 1930s,” Chapter 1 focuses on the evolution of four central trends in Burke’s early thought, and the conversations that developed them (p. 7). The first of these is falling on the bias, Burke’s desire to cut across the opposing philosophies and traditions in pursuit of a “third way” that transcended conflict not merely by finding common ground, but by recognizing opposing positions as only two of many possible positions. Though Burke hoped this strategy could help nations avoid armed conflict, it rarely availed him as a tool for transcending the conflicts of his contemporaries. Attempting to transcend the differences between Marxist and aesthetic critics, Burke found both camps merely thought he was from the other. Weiser notes Burke’s second trend as the move towards translation. In attempting to transcend specific positions and philosophies, Burke recognized the importance of helping people to hear opposing positions translated into their own vocabularies. Clearly recognizable in Burke’s later work, he “went beyond mere demonstration of their shared social beliefs and instead expanded his understanding of the role of language in orienting all readers toward reality” (p. 12). The third trend—ambiguity and incongruity, apparent in Attitudes toward History and Permanence and Change, was Burke’s attempt to find a linguistic counter to recalcitrance. Rooted in ambiguity, Burke’s fourth trend was his move towards the comic corrective. Burke believed being able to see the inherent ambiguity of a world of language users in society would encourage a charitable attitude towards those with whom one disagrees, an attitude encouraging the cooperation that made action possible.

Of course, the recognition that “every insight contains its own special kind of blindness” was not always popular to adherents to the philosophies that produced those insights (Burke, 1937, p. 41). In Chapter 2, Weiser focuses on the agents with whom Burke conversed. Focused particularly on the New Critics and critics at the University of Chicago, Weiser finds that in his conversations in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Burke developed the ideas represented in Philosophy of Literary Form. She also contends that Burke’s frustration with being misunderstood in these conversations contributed greatly to his addition of the pentad to A Grammar of Motives. Though these misunderstandings were often caused by Burke’s tendency to fall on the bias, his bias falling also benefited his writing by allowing insights unique to the discussions of his time. Weiser documents a number of the correspondences, harsh reviews, and unwelcomed praise that pushed Burke toward the development of a methodology for dramatism that proposed critics and poets “were not just to examine literature or society, but to diagnose society through literature and to diagnose literature in order to diagnose society” (p. 56).

The need for such diagnoses became increasingly apparent as Burke’s thought developed into the 1940s. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on dramatism as Burke’s antifacist act in the years just before and throughout World War II. In attempting to purify war through an inducement to dialogue, Burke vehemently resisted the mass temptation to follow a political strongman. Defying the trend toward monologic unity that even began to take root in the Popular Front, Burke instead sought to counter the drive to a single-voiced public by advocating instead the “babel” of parliament. Weiser opens by noting that in critiquing Hitler’s Mein Kempf, Burke claims “the parliament, at its best, is a ‘babel’ of voices. There is the wrangle of men representing interests lying awkwardly on the bias across one another, sometimes opposing, sometimes vaguely divergent” (p. 58). Burke’s resistance is far from surprising, as all five of the great strongmen in the conflict offered the something incompatible with Burke’s hope for transcendence: certainty. However, Burke’s opposition to certainty and desire to find a comic transcendence was greatly challenged by a radical shift in scene. As the United States plunged into war in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Burke found ambiguity in short supply amongst his peers. However, the horrors of total war also reinforced Burke’s commitment to a grammar which enabled social action.  By developing the understanding of symbolic action as “both description and exhortation. . . [Burke offered] a new call to arms for a generation that had too often been called to arms—the inducement to a unity of action springing from dialectic” (p. 84). Though it was too late to avert the current war, Burke believed in the power of critic to influence what type of new world would be erected on the ashes of the old.

The book’s final two chapters focus on A Grammar of Motives, with chapter 5 dedicated to the first two parts of GM, and chapter 6 on Burke’s purpose in writing it as illuminated in part three, as well as the response to the book given the rapidly shifting scene into which Burke published it. Weiser provides a close analysis of GM that both clearly analyzes the text and situates it as Burke’s attempt to respond to the war and avoid repeating the mistakes that led to it. As the war climaxed and closed, Burke believed his shift to comic ambiguity and transcendence would provide a beacon to the post-war world capable of guiding them as they paused and contemplated where to go next. However, the pause Burke hoped to capitalize on never occurred. The fall of the Axis powers gave way to the Cold War and the fear of annihilation, which Burke immediately recognized as devastating to his call to transcend fanaticism and dissipation with new linguistic perspectives. Burke’s recognition is nowhere clearer than in his starting GM’s conclusion by stating “so much for the Grammar of Motives” (p. 441). In many ways, his pessimism was well founded—Burke did not imagine the long term significance of GM amongst critics and academics, but he could clearly see that he had written a manuscript for a moment that never materialized.

For those who wish to read Burke as an ahistorical thinker whose ideas entirely transcended the scene in which he wrote, this book is a striking refutation. However, those less interested in Burke the romantic poet and more interested in Burke the Word Man in the parlor will find little that is stunningly new in the text. Yet Weiser suggests that developing our understanding of Burke’s scene actually makes book more timeless—knowing the scene of its origination moves us to know when ad bellum purificandum is precisely the medicine our own time needs. Her project of rhetoricizing dramatism helps us to understand it as a call to action, not academic introspection. What Weiser’s project of rhetoricizing dramatism lacks in terms of covering new ground, it more than makes up for in its careful exploration of existing terrain.

Therein lies the great value of Burke, War, Words—its broad appeal. Seasoned Burkean scholars will appreciate Weiser’s archival work. It is difficult to read Burke’s correspondences throughout the book and not frequently recall aphorisms from Burke’s work in a new light. To those who have struggled with connecting and conceptualizing Burke’s expansive writings (a challenge many of Burke’s contemporaries found overwhelming), these small epiphanies are of great value. Though Weiser’s central focus is A Grammar of Motives, her analysis of Attitudes Toward History and Permanence and Change provide an insightful mapping of the development of Burke’s thought through Grammar, and even as he began work on A Rhetoric of Motives. Accordingly, new students of Burke’s works will undoubtedly find this book illuminating for its clear discussion and detailed contextualization of Burke’s theoretical framework and the world he hoped his writings would help create.

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