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Why Kenneth Burke is worth reading

February 25, 2013

A Twitter colleague put out a call for help recently:

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I know how he feels – I had to clear my diary for at least a week to read The Rhetoric of Motives **. It took a long period of entry, and then re-entry back to normal life. But it turned me into a fan of this quietly influential philosopher, of the ‘why-didn’t-I-know-about-it-years-ago’ type.

In response to the call, I had offered to provide a potted summary of Burke’s ideas, so here is a hard-won distillation. It is taken from a work-in-progress of my own about editing (a PhD thesis, and later a book with the working title: The Hidden Art) so in the unlikely case that anyone wants to use it, the usual caveats apply about referencing (him and me, as appropriate). Let me know if there’s anything that needs more explanation.

* * *

The Rhetoric of Motives is distinctive in developing the subject far beyond its traditional boundaries, towards a philosophy of rhetoric. It does so by exploring the ‘intermediate area of expression that is not wholly deliberate, yet not wholly unconscious’ (Burke, 1950: xiii) and charting a spectrum of persuasion, from the ‘bluntest quest of advantage’ to a pure form ‘that delights in the process of appeal for itself alone, without ulterior purpose’ (ibid: xiv).

In doing so, Burke helps to show ‘how a rhetorical motive is often present where it is not usually recognised, or thought to belong’. (xiii) As he elaborates, rhetoric has power not only over action but also over attitudes, when freedom to act is constrained for any reason. This ‘permits the application of rhetorical terms to purely poetic structures; the study of lyrical devices might be classed under the head of rhetoric, when these devices are considered for their power to induce or communicate states of mind to readers, even though the kinds of assent evoked have no overt, practical outcome.’ (50)

The work makes the case for the study of language in itself, as an example of ‘the autonomy of fields’; it is valuable methodologically ‘because it gives clear insight into some particular set of principles’, and is ‘helpful as a reaction against the excesses of extreme historicism’ (28). In Burke’s day, the two main competing frameworks from which autonomy was being declared were a reductionist pro-market ‘scientism’ on one hand, and reductionist historical materialism or Marxism on the other. But a similar declaration of independence can be made now from other frames of reference, for example the more totalising versions of post-modern constructivism, or from biological determinism.

Burke is giving permission to focus on language as a thing in itself, rather than focusing on its contextual aspects. But reflecting on his ideas, one sees that ‘context’ does not disappear – it is relocated inside the rhetorical process. Persuasion depends on motive, and motive within language is in no way obvious – context is vital to its meaning. As in a joke, the same words can have very different meanings, with or without animus, depending on how the tone and context are understood. (6) Burke writes:

A motive introduced in one work, where the context greatly modifies it and keeps it from being drastically itself, may lack such important modifications in the context of another work. The proportions of these modifications themselves are essential in defining the total motivation, which cannot, without misinterpretation, be reduced merely to the one ‘gist’, with all the rest viewed as mere concealment or ‘rationalization’ of it. (6)

Context includes the order of the thing being communicated; for example, the motive of a narrative can be indicated by the storyteller’s choice of ending, since ‘a history’s end is a formal way of proclaiming its essence or nature’. (13) It also includes a relationship between transient and permanent factors of appeal – the dimension of time – because ‘topical shifts make certain images more persuasive in one situation than another’.

Just as Walter Ong later underlines that the marks made in writing are not a representation of a thing itself, but the representation of an utterance about a thing (Ong, 1997), Burke identifies the ‘reflexive pattern’ of language, which is ‘not merely speech about things […] but speech about speech.’ (178)

Writing is not the product of thought but its dramatisation; it is an act of thought in itself. Symbols are not just reflections of the things being symbolised, or signs for them: ‘They are to a degree a transcending of the things symbolized. So, to say that man is a symbol-using animal is by the same token to say that he is a “transcending animal.” Thus, there is in language itself a motive force calling man to transcend the “state of nature” (that is, the order of motives that would prevail in a world without language).’ (192).

Another way of putting this is that although the world contains nonverbal actions, these actions also persuade by reason of their symbolic character:

Paper need not know the meaning of fire in order to burn. But in the ‘idea’ of fire there is a persuasive ingredient. By this route something of the rhetorical motive comes to lurk in every ‘meaning’, however purely scientific its pretensions. Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning,’ there is ‘persuasion’. (172)

The link between persuasion and rhetoric is clear. But what of the connection between persuasion and meaning? According to Burke, the link comes via identification. Persuasion is a kind of communication, and communication is by definition between distinct, different beings: ‘But difference is not felt merely as between this entity and that entity. Rather, it is felt realistically, as between this kind of entity and that kind of entity’ (177). [SG: my emphasis]

The motives for linguistic persuasion emerge out of this generic divisiveness, a formal sense of classification within humans that exists prior to any specific social, economic or gender divisions.

Such divisiveness allows for a process of identification, in both a positive and negative sense: ‘Partition provides terms; thereby it allows the parts to comment upon one another. But this “loving” relation allows also for the “fall” into terms antagonistic in their partiality, until dialectically resolved by reduction to “higher” terms.’ (140) It is not merely the differences between individuals and groups that drive them apart, it is also the elements they share, ‘since the same motives are capable of both eulogistic and dyslogistic naming’ (141).

Communication between kinds amounts to an abstract form of ‘courtship’, a communion of estranged entities that depends on the mystery of strangeness. Even if the communion is snapped by hatred, ‘it can be socially organized only by the building of a counter-continuity; hence the mystery of persuasion is not categorically abolished, it is transformed.’ (177)

For the speaker to ‘court’ the spoken-to continually, distance is necessary: ‘For if union is complete, what incentive can there be for appeal? Theoretically, there can be courtship only insofar as there is division.’ (271) Distance is created through the rhetorical technique of ‘interference’ or standoffishness, which has the sacrificial quality of denying or postponing union.

At one level identification depends on knowing the audience in a literal fashion. But there are also purely formal patterns in a text that ‘readily awaken an attitude of collaborative expectancy in us’, and therefore a more participatory role for the reader in the interpretation of meaning. Identification takes place when the listener has been persuaded to participate by formal means, based on a universal appeal. Commenting on classical texts about rhetorical techniques, Burke notes a reference…

…to that kind of elation wherein the audience feels as though it were not merely receiving, but were itself creatively participating in the poet’s or speaker’s assertion. Could we not say that, in such cases, the audience is exalted by the assertion because it has the feel of collaborating in the assertion? (58)

Burke goes further to draw parallels between the persuasion of an external audience (the preoccupation of traditional rhetoric) and a more internal, psychological process of identification: ‘You become your own audience when you become involved in subterfuges for presenting your own case to yourself in sympathetic terms.’ (39).

He acknowledges the multiplicity of potential meanings, especially those arising from historical traces. Since only the ‘ideas’ survive in relics of the past, there must be uncertainty about how a text can be interpreted and ‘the people who used it may have been quite aware of many other meanings subsumed in it, but not explicitly proclaimed […] because it was so obvious to them that it did not need mention.’ (110-11)

This raises problems for interpretive frameworks that depend on a concept of ‘unmasking’ the latent meanings lying behind images and symbols. If the human mind depends on the use of symbols, then ‘every aspect of his “reality” is likely to be seen through a fog of symbols. And not even the hard reality of basic economic facts is sufficient to pierce this symbolic veil’ (136).

This emphasis on symbols is suggestive of post-structuralism and the literary critic Wayne Booth, in a 2001 collection of essays* about Burke, says that in some sense he can be understood as ‘the first full-fledged deconstructionist’.

But there are important differences: ‘Burke was distressed by any thinker who reduced all reality to language’ and expressed annoyance about deconstructionists ‘who, in Burke’s reading deny the plain fact, the hard substantive reality, that a child learns to distinguish real tastes before he or she learns any words for distinguishing tastes.’ (Booth, 2001: 198)

** Burke, Kenneth (1950) A Rhetoric of Motives, Berkeley: U Cal Press (republished 1969)

* Booth, Wayne C. (2001) “The Many Voices of Kenneth Burke, Theologian and Prophet, as Revealed in His Letters to Me” in Henderson, Greig and David Cratis Williams, eds, Unending Conversations: new writings by and about Kenneth Burke, Carbondale ILL: Southern Illinois University Press, , pp 179 to 201

The raw and the cooked

July 20, 2012

A new book on literary journalism is now on sale; a collection of essays by scholars from around the world. It contains two chapters by me.

One chapter, ‘Slow journalism in the digital fast lane’, examines narrative journalism in the age of the internet. It picks up where I left off in a 2007 Prospect article (see Item 3) and includes references to this blog. If you are new to Oddfish and interested in knowing more about the updates on the meme provided on the blog, please look here, here and here.

The new work’s advance on those earlier contributions is twofold. It attempts to map the emerging publishing platforms and relationships that will determine, in future, whether and how high-quality nonfiction storytelling reaches an audience. And it puts forward an argument in the long-standing debate about what makes a piece of writing ‘authentic’.

A set of conventions has developed for digital genres, around the normative ideals of raw vs cooked; artisan vs industrial; provisional vs complete. These qualities are invoked as a guarantee of authenticity but the assumptions behind the ideal are often tacit and therefore unexamined.

Once scrutinised, the ideal of a pure, raw text begs many questions. For writers it is the ability to achieve some measure of distance from raw feeling that can leave readers free to find their own emotional response. And one only has to press ‘send’ on an email to know that, because of some trick of the brain, a text must be ‘finished’ before one can know, to the fullest extent, what needs changing. We need both change and constraint. These questions matter for narrative nonfiction:

Literary journalism represents an attempt to offer considered, original and documented writing that recognises that subjective experience needs verification to stay real. However the move into a digital environment puts it in potential conflict with a form of nonfiction that makes a virtue of its raw and instantaneous qualities. The challenge in this environment is to find important new ways of delivering the luxury of slow journalism’s reflection and documented discovery, and make creative use of the tensions at play, to allow for a further evolution of writing forms.

The other chapter, on Poland, reflects a long-standing preoccupation with central Europe. But at one level, the main discovery made in the writing related to problems of long vintage, rather than anything specific about a country or region. In both essays, reporting is understood as a form of expanded consciousness – a personal experience that is deliberately turned outward and tested by verification. And in both, there is an exploration of the ways it can fall foul of the ideals of ‘committed speech’, in one form or another. About Poland, I write:

The experience of East-Central Europe seems to indicate that when committed reportage is on the outside it can function as literature, albeit one that is not to everyone’s taste. But when it is on the inside, this becomes impossible – it cannot sustain itself because it is simply unbelievable.

The muscular strength that it gave to my jaw

June 17, 2012

Father, the teacher

I went to pay the paper bill the other day. The shopkeeper consulted rows of perforated pink delivery slips; both she and I were surprised to discover it was nearly six months since my last visit. I muttered something about ‘a busy period’ and paid the bill.

Later I remembered that the same period had passed since this blog was updated.

Death has a way of knocking time out of its daily orbit. This time, the shift began on Valentine’s Day, when my father went into hospital for a check-up. By the evening he had become an in-patient; he passed away a few weeks later. In the intervening period, every day contained a multitude of dramas. He was elderly and had been struggling with chronic disease, but in life the precise details of a story’s end cannot be known, and so death always comes as a surprise.

This blog is dedicated to work-in-progress, not personal life, but sometimes progress cannot be resumed until we do something to note, in public, the shift in life’s orbit.

Father was a sharp-witted, well read man who – much to his later regret – dropped out of a PhD and teaching job at Rutgers University to support a growing family. Even in unpromising conditions the learning instinct remained. Sorting out the personal effects left behind, we found the letter of appointment from the university, a treasured document. A box of photographs included one of a man in his prime, standing at the blackboard, delivering a lecture to his staff.

At the memorial gathering I recalled standing in the kitchen – a young woman trying to hold her own – while father challenged me to defend my views and come up with clear arguments, clearly put. It reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s verse: ‘In my youth […] I took to the law and argued each case with my wife. And the muscular strength that it gave to my jaw has lasted the rest of my life.’

The night Havel became president

December 18, 2011

New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1989. I am in Prague for Reuters to report on the inauguration of Vaclav Havel as president of Czechoslovakia. The single party rule of decades is finally over, after seven weeks of a popular revolt summed up by the slogan Havel to the Castle’. In the thronged streets, people walk through the chilly air with goofy looks on their faces.

It’s not a surprise that Havel died this weekend, given his age and health, but the loss feels personal, and I miss knowing that he is around. A public figure who was loved and respected in equal measure – that is a feeling that today’s crop of leaders do not inspire.

I returned to Prague for The Guardian in November 1990 and the following summer joined other correspondents at a picnic with the president at Lany, the Czech version of Chequers. Here is the story that was published on July 12, 1991:

How Havel’s spider is changing the Castle
The shirt-sleeved president sat on a bench by the lake, sipping beer and wrestling with a thick sausage which slithered around his paper plate. Assorted correspondents formed an intimate circle around him on the grass.

Around us lay the grounds of Lany Castle, traditional country residence of Czechoslovak leaders and currently in the service of our host, Vaclav Havel. Nearby, in the summer light, more journalists sat on the lawn with the president’s assistants, in clusters of gossip.

This happy band had been assembled for a PR job with a difference – to explain how things were changing at the main presidential office. The Castle, perched on the top of a steep hill above the city, is increasingly accused of being as remote as it looks, as tensions rise and memories of the ‘velvet revolution’ fade. What was first seen as a charming unconventionality is now painted as a problem; the place is being run by a bunch of amateurs, the president is being badly advised.

Gone is the ‘society of friends’, needed in the early days to ward off hostile communist ghosts. In comes the professional team, with a line of command and defined areas of responsibility.

Mr Havel started with a demonstration of ‘the spider’: a diagram of the new structure. ‘We found we needed to strengthen individual offices, because a collective body always leads to a collective lack of responsibility,’ he explained. ‘In the absence of structures I have had the feeling of being the object of developments, in a way that manipulated me and the whole office. The aim is to become the subject. To do things in the way we plan them.’

Another aim was to make sure the truly remote style of the old communist regime was rooted out. ‘People would send letters to the president telling their life story, full of the troubles they had been through under this regime and that one, and all they got back was a rude and nasty reply from an unsympathetic official,’ said aide Eda Kriseova. There was also an emphasis on improving links with Slovakia, where disenchantment with federal institutions is on the increase. The Bratislava office of the president is being strengthened.

Mr Havel observed that as institutions gained their footing, his own power diminished, a normal and welcome process. But in a transitional society there could have been room for a strong hand. He admitted to having erred.

‘My mistake was that in the early days, when in effect I had almost total power, I did not push through certain things which ended up taking much longer. For example, the business of removing the word “socialist” from the official name of the country. I could have got up in parliament and said, “I propose x and y,’ and it would have happened in 10 minutes, but I was persuaded it should go through all the official channels. It ended up taking three months. It need not have happened.’

Synchronised fires

November 29, 2011

The log fire in the lobby of Motel One in Leipzig is a simulacrum, a recurring loop of film on a flat screen, in which a large piece of wood near the front always breaks into ash embers at the same sequential moment. What’s more, all rooms in the hotel show the same fire, running off the same loop, while the human lives in each room play out their different dramas.


I was in Leipzig earlier this month for an Erasmus teaching exchange, one of the more enjoyable possibilities of a career in higher education. My hotel was right next door to the church where pro-democracy demonstrations helped bring in the democratic changes of 1989. The students spoke good English, and the faculty were warm and attentive.

I spoke about the lyric essay, a burgeoning form in English literature, and asked whether this was popular in Germany too. One class was put to work responding to the story title, “Things my father or mother never told me”. Afterwards, the thought struck that this standard writing exercise had another dimension in a country where, at one point, half the population might have been spying on the other half. Later, in the November chill, I stocked up on woollen tights and hats, and was struck by the kindness of the shop assistants.

A chair in digital humanities (joke)

November 20, 2011

A home for the new cushion sporting the UCL Centre for the Digital Humanities logo


Slow publishing

October 22, 2011

A few days ago, on Wednesday October 19, Julian Barnes won the Man Booker prize for his novel A Sense of an Ending. In his acceptance speech he thanked the book’s designer and explained why its appearance was important: ‘Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.’

This blog has followed the concept of the ‘end of the middle’ and the tendency to find either very cheap goods and services at one end of the market, or  luxurious, distinctive ones at the other. Slow journalism and other things associated with the ‘slow’ meme come in the second category. An aspect of their distinction is the luxury of time and reflection they offer in a speedy world, and a high standard of information about sources, or provenance. A recent post on the subject rounded up some relevant mentions.

Is it stretching this concept too much, to say that Barnes is making the case for what we can now call ‘slow publishing’? Assuming you will all kindly say ‘no’, it is not too much, here are some other mentions spotted since the last round-up which also seem to fit:

Buttonwood, ‘Slow Finance‘, The Economist October 22, 2011
‘Gervais Williams, a successful fund manager, argues that the [finance] industry’s approach should change. In some ways his new book, Slow Finance, is in the tradition of Benjamin Graham, the founder of modern security analysis. Investors should have a “value” bent, looking for companies that are unappreciated by the markets. They should particularly seek firms with a strong dividend yield. They should focus on the long term. […] Just as enthusiasts for slow food like to buy their meat from local farmers, Mr Williams thinks investors should have a focus on small, local companies.’

Alan Rusbridger, ‘The Guardian iPad app goes live’, The Guardian, October 13, 2011
‘You can now […] literally follow [The Guardian] minute by minute around the clock as it reports, mirrors, analyses and gives context to the shifting patterns and rhythms of the world’s news. [But] we’ve consciously set out, with this version, to deliver […] a reflective once-a-day Guardian, designed and edited for iPad.’

Matt Stempeck, ‘What If We Had a Nutrition Label for the News?’, Idea Lab, October 11 2011
‘Demand for international news has actually increased in recent years. It’s beyond clear that in this global era, we need to know what’s happening elsewhere. But we’re also living in an age where we’re overwhelmed daily by the amount of information and content seeking our attention […] The Center for Civic Media, under the leadership of Ethan Zuckerman, is embarking on a project to build the tools to empower the individual, and the news providers themselves, to see at a glance what they’re getting and what they’re missing in their daily consumption. We seek to provide a nutritional label for your news diet.’

John Gapper, ‘Instant Messengers‘, Financial Times October 2, 2011
‘Intimate accounts of world-changing events are now well-established in non-fiction publishing, with numerous examples provided by the 2008 financial crisis and by political events such as this year’s Egyptian revolution. […] This evolution raises big questions about the trade-off between immediacy and accuracy – or at least perspective.’

John Ellis, ‘Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation’, Routledge July 20, 2011
‘Innovations in technology can seem to offer greater realism but can at the same time frustrate attempts to achieve it. John Ellis therefore proposes the idea of “Slow Film” as an antidote to the problems of increasing speed brought about by easy digital editing.’

Minhee Cho, ‘Stephen Engelberg Shares His Thoughts on Long-Form Storytelling’, Pro Publica March 9, 2011
‘”I think in today’s world, what we’ve seen is that people are hungry for bits of information,” Engelberg said. “Mediocre long-form journalism falls by the wayside in this kind of world, but superb long-form journalism, I think, has a secure place in the future of writing […] A daily newspaper, these days in particular, have significant limits on space and most of the stories are going to be produced fairly quickly. They are going to be related to news of the day. In long-form journalism, we hope to be telling a story and to take more time and more space to bolster the journalism and sort of deliver the narrative.”‘

Patrick Kingsley, ‘The Art of Slow Reading‘, The Guardian July 15, 2010
‘First we had slow food, then slow travel. Now, those campaigns are joined by a slow-reading movement – a disparate bunch of academics and intellectuals who want us to take our time while reading, and re-reading. They ask us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.

Second Sight

October 14, 2011

On Monday I was interviewed by someone researching into women’s photography groups of the late 1970s and early 1980s. (She’s a historian. A historian! My past is history.)

I joined a women’s photography group in 1980, when starting on adult life in London. I was the youngest of five or six women. We called ourselves ‘Second Sight’. As a group, we only showed our work on two occasions: the first time, for a community project called ‘Hackney Creates’, and the second time – just before disbanding in the mid-80s – in a bespoke exhibition at Lauderdale House in North London.

Sitting now at a table in the British Library, the researcher asks me, ‘What was your group’s philosophy?’ I think: I dunno, we took pictures and showed them to each other in our kitchens. We were saying – at a time when that was still unusual – that photography, both as art and as a technical skill, was women’s work too (in a way, the Women Who Tech of our time). We were saying that women belonged in public spaces, not just private ones. We were interested in the stories of everyday life, not just the news ‘event’. The aesthetic was black and white, ideally with a black line around the image. (For those who care about such things, by the way, this was obtained by carefully filing back the edge of the enlarger’s negative carrier. Nowadays, you can get the effect in seconds on an iPhone app)

After the interview I dug out some prints. During the early 1980s, postcards were going through a revival and I had taken a photograph of mine to Walker Prints, to sell in London bookshops. One of my flatmates worked at Sisterwrite, but the collective wouldn’t stock the postcard because they thought cars were oppressive. On the back of the image still sitting in my personal archive, you can see the printer’s mark-up information, plus a sticker from the photography journal Camerawork, with a page number and issue date – the card was shown on its back page, along with a few others from that year.

The content of the image captures the political ‘graffiti’ art typical of the time. But it was the form, the physical matter of the image, that still gives the most pleasure. A gifted photographer had shown me how to develop film in a way that made every grain distinct, and the production of a print that might do this justice was the work of many hours in the foetal light of the darkroom. So was the experimentation with different photographic papers – the one shown here gave whites a beautiful luminosity – and grades of contrast. Every variation had to be tried on a separate piece of paper; exposed, dodged, burned, developed, stopped, fixed, washed and dried.

Personal experience, turned outwards

September 12, 2011

I have had some work published in Issue 62 of Free Associations. This is a long-established journal that explores psychoanalysis and its relation to culture, now under the new (and peer reviewed) editorship of Dr Caroline Bainbridge and Dr Candida Yates.

The article concerns the relations between facts and feelings in nonfiction writing, and develops the ideas sketched out in the THE last summer. One strand of argument is to show how reporting – finding out about the external world – can be understand as a form of personal experience, which is deliberately turned outward and tested by verification. Another considers the nature of demands for ‘authenticity’. I write:

If a text’s falseness or authenticity is no longer defined solely by its professionalism or stance towards objectivity, it becomes necessary to find a different way of distinguishing between the two […] The possibility should exist of finding an alienated subjectivity not just in professional texts that manipulate the consumer, but also in those created by artisanal producers; and of finding authenticity not only in marginal practices, but also in professional, mainstream ones.

More about failure

September 5, 2011
tags: ,

Text and links added September 7, 2011

Earlier in the year, this blog noted the launch of The Failure Files, a collection of essays about the uses of failure. A website called The 99% has now put together a fascinating list of stories on the same theme (nothing to do with the book) which can be found here. (Image courtesy of The 99%)

I also discovered that there is a website by a colleague, collating material on the theme and the book on a regular basis, which lives here. And in a comment below, a reader has pointed out an interesting artistic project called the Institute of Failure.

Since The Failure Files was published this spring, I found old files that show I have been following this thread for much longer than realised. For example, this article in Prospect back in June 1999 said that the public expectation of perfection can invite permanent disappointment. Why try to define an ethical foreign policy, when there might be inconsistencies? Why trust any profession, when some practitioners have erred? The Winnicottian concept of the ‘good-enough mother’ says that to develop, the infant must learn the mother is not infinitely controllable and the early, blissful illusion of perfect mother and baby cannot be sustained. ‘Societies that are rigid in finding perfection, like the former Soviet Union, get into trouble because mistakes go uncorrected. But so do those which rigidly find awfulness in everything. That way leads to paralysis, a refusal to make any diagnosis and take any action.’ We should argue whether a policy is right, but we should not expect it to be perfect.

I would add now, in response to a growing mood of paranoia, that rigidity also feeds the growth of conspiracy thinking, in which the messiness of life is not enough; everything must have a reason – the old choice between the conspiracy theory and the fuck-up theory.

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