Note on Kenneth Burke

The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory, 2nd ed
(London: Routledge, 2013)

Burke, Kenneth (1897-1993)

North American critic known for his pioneering work on ‘symbolic action’ (Burke 1989: 77-85). This refers to the notion that every ‘saying’ is also a ‘doing’: when we produce words, whether in conversations or in poems, we are trying to engage with the world. Consequently, the human subject is always situated and never quite complete: a notion he develops by way of his theory of ‘dramatism’ (Burke 1989: 135-8). If, in Shakespeare’s words, ‘All the world’s a stage’, then ‘dramatism’ is Burke’s account of what is involved when we treat language and thought as activities within the theatre of society. In philosophical terms, he is a pragmatist (one who assesses statements in terms of their consequences): he is interested in the uses to which language is put, whether in literary or everyday discourse.

One tendency which he documents particularly closely is the way our ‘words’ inevitably build up to imply one absolute ‘Word’ – some ultimate idea, or rather ideal. According to Burke, it is in pursuit of this perfection, and in consolidating our societies, that we create scapegoats, that is, people identified as ‘other’, to whom our faults and failures to achieve perfection are attributed: a process he calls ‘victimage’ (Burke 1989: 280-90). Literature and mythology are useful means of dealing with this urge symbolically; however, religion, politics and ideology need watching carefully, as they have a tendency towards literal, violent enactment. Enjoying a tragedy whose protagonist acts as scapegoat is preferable to succumbing to propaganda which victimises a racial minority. Burke goes further, however: it would be better if the dramatic model were to explicitly inform social conduct. Here he is thinking of that other major form, comedy. Burke commends the ‘comic corrective’ as a means of learning from the structure and mood of comedy how to see human life as ‘a project in “composition”’, thus avoiding the folly of believing ourselves to be always in the right (Burke 1989: 261-7).

Burke’s interest in the workings of society goes hand in hand with his interest in ecology: both have to do with relationships and interaction, after all.  He is consistent in claiming that drama offers the best means of understanding our relation with the natural environment. Again and again, he challenges the mechanistic view of both human behaviour and the natural order, speaking out against the damage being done by unrestrained industrialisation and agribusiness: damage which he sees as the logical consequence of a ‘cult of technology’ and its attendant ‘technological psychosis’ (Burke 1989: 200). Now  that nature itself has become the victim of human aggression, the need for a ‘cult of comedy’ which might restrain our obsessive perfectionism becomes more not less important, given the havoc that is being wrought by the human insistence on always taking things ‘to the end of the line’. Burke may be regarded as the first exponent of green theory.

Further reading:

Blakesley, David (2002), The Elements of Dramatism, New York: Longman.

Burke, Kenneth (1989), On Symbols and Society, ed. Joseph R. Gusfield, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Coupe, Laurence (2012), Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology, West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press.

Laurence Coupe