The Rites of Identity

Religion 34 (2004)

Review: Beth Eddy, The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003)


To many of us, Kenneth Burke’s most important book is The Rhetoric of Religion (1961); but in a sense all his previous work, from the early Thirties onwards, is implicitly about the relationship between language and the idea of the ‘supernatural’ — between words and the Word. For Beth Eddy, Burke’s emphasis is consistently on the first term in these pairings: that is, his field is religion as a human construct, as a cultural creation. Further, if using words in order to sanctify the ideals which consolidate their communities is what human beings inevitably do, then the phrase ‘religious naturalism’ becomes appropriate.

However, Eddy emphasises that by ‘religious naturalism’ she does not mean ‘reductive materialism’. It is significant that the legacy from which she sees Burke benefiting is not that of Marxism but rather that represented by figures such as Emerson and Santayana. For Burke does not set out to explain away spirituality, tradition and received wisdom; indeed, he is especially interested in the benefits of ‘piety’, as are his mentors. What he wants is not that society should abandon religion but that it should allow for its continual critique, adjustment and refinement in a humane spirit of dialogue. Ultimately, his rationale is pragmatic; and Eddy’s subtle defence of Burke as one of the most articulate spokespersons for American pragmatism is a chief pleasure of her book. She demonstrates that his debt is not only to Emerson (though we are left in no doubt of Emerson’s influence on pragmatic thought) but also to William James.

An interesting sideline of her discussion is a careful differentiation of Burke’s Emersonian fascination with the ‘bridging’ power of language, by which he means its capacity to speak of the farther shore of spirit in terms of the mundane ground of experience, from Harold Bloom’s Gnostic interpretation of American pragmatism. In other words, if Bloom’s invocation of the supernatural involves the refusal of the created world, Burke’s involves its realisation. When he defines ‘man’ as ‘the symbol-using animal’, he means to suggest a full range of possibilities. If the human being is a creature with close affinities to other primates, who also have language, what ‘man’ possesses beyond that is the capacity to reflect on his/her own words and, ultimately, to imagine the perfection of the absolute Word.

That said, ‘perfection’ is, for Burke, a deeply ambiguous term. Thus, Eddy has to devote a good deal of space to his reflections on how a society, while finding order and meaning through its ideals, may also define itself through the exclusion, punishment or sacrifice of a ‘scapegoat’. If ideals fail, those dedicated to them may well seek an appropriate ‘other’ to bear the burden of their sins. Eddy argues that for Burke the sacrificial or scapegoating impulse is unlikely to disappear, so he commends its expression in wholly symbolic terms. It is better to achieve catharsis through the intensity of a tragic drama, in which a representative individual appears to suffer and die, than to carry out programmes of social ‘purification’ by which whole groups of people actually suffer and die. But the argument necessarily becomes complicated when Eddy also has to acknowledge the fact that Burke’s own saving mechanism is comedy rather than tragedy. He believes that we may save ourselves from the urge for bloody resolution of the social drama by laughing at our own absurdity. Burke commends the ‘comic’ or ‘charitable’ attitude, by which we forgive ourselves even while we forgive others. This is how ‘piety’ is redeemed from an excess of perfectionism and restored to the pragmatic business of learning to live in community. To put this in other terms, if for Burke rhetoric is primarily a matter of ‘identification’, then the aim of all his work is to encourage  ‘congregation’ that does not involve violent ‘segregation’. Religious custom all too often relies on the language of sacrifice when it should be engaged in a constant debate between ‘piety’ and ‘impiety’ –- the latter being a useful means of ‘comic corrective’.

The influence of Burke on thinkers as diverse as Girard and Geertz may be taken for granted, given such tenets. More surprising is Eddy’s claim that the novelist Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, was indebted to Burke in his depiction of the troubles of a young black man in New York City, and in his own cultural criticism. Yet about a third of Rites of Identity is taken up with situating Ellison in the context of Burke’s religious naturalism. An interesting aspect of the discussion is Ellison’s ambivalence towards the ‘comic’ mode of redemption. Where Burke distinguishes tragedy and comedy quite sharply, Ellison tends to merge them: his sphere is ‘tragicomedy’, which he sees as being articulated by black Americans most expressively in the musical form known as the blues. Eddy proposes that, in his defence of this genre, Ellison is acknowledging his debt to the ‘piety’ of his own tradition. Moreover, if the blues is a ‘rite of identity’, then it is one that does full justice to suffering even while it offers a ‘comic’ critique of the scapegoating of blacks by whites.

Such an insight into the thinking behind Invisible Man, a hugely resonant work of our era, is Eddy’s way of both confirming and revising Burke’s influence. For, if comedy is a mode of transcendence, both Burke and Ellison remind us that this genuinely religious impulse may be celebrated in a manner that is provisional, symbolic and circumspect. For my own part, I believe that Burke is far more fascinated by transcendence in the theological sense than his preoccupation with rhetorical identification might suggest; nor do I consider that such a fascination is incompatible with his relish for what he once called ‘the world’s rich store of error’. But that is an argument for another day, and meanwhile we may be grateful to Beth Eddy for this challenging case for Burke’s ‘religious naturalism’ and its influence.

Laurence Coupe