Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Kenneth Burke's Continued Relevance: Arguments toward a Better Life

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Kenneth Burke's Continued Relevance: Arguments toward a Better Life

Article excerpt

In the wake of Kenneth Burke's death in 1993, a branch of rhetorical scholarship shifted its focus, away from the Burkean system to consideration of Burke himself. In Burkean parlance, we might describe this as a move away from Burke's writings, and toward "KB," the man behind the corpus. Consequently, collections of Burke's correspondence have appeared (e.g. Jay; Reuckert, Letters), adding to the portrait provided by historical scholarship on his writings (e.g. Williams; Reuckert, "Kenneth") and the first volume of a biography tracing his life and work (Selzer).

However, as Burke himself would remind us, this simple narrative is not sufficient; "it's more complicated than that." The decade since Burke's passing has witnessed another trend: scholarship that promotes the relevance of Burke's texts for the study of contemporary rhetoric and social change. In short, these works agree that, over a century after his birth, Burkean scholarship matters, there is something at stake in our readings of Burke. This review accordingly considers five texts from the past ten years exemplifying this second trend, all of which share a central thesis: Burke's perspective on symbolic action allows him to uniquely address the interlinked processes of public argument and social change.

These works also face a common dilemma: how can one summarize a scholar whose works span five decades, and are notoriously difficult to reconcile? Stephen By grave's Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric and Ideology, the earliest text considered here, explicitly abjures the introduction of Burke as a whole, leaving such work to others. Instead, Bygrave's reading of Burke's work centers around a single concept-ideology-and its relationship to rhetoric: "Rhetoric and ideology are not the same thing, but the latter is not to be understood without the former, and his demonstration of this is one way in which Burke is vitally exemplary" (7).

Burke's utility to ideology critique rests on two central features of his theory of rhetoric. First, according to Bygrave, Burke recasts rhetorical theory by directing our attention to the workings of strategy (e.g. 30-34, 107-110). Drawing heavily on Burke's Philosophy of Literary Form, Bygrave asserts that Burke rejects representation in favor of strategic action, language as "sizing up," accounting for, and adequately (or not!) responding to changing natural and discursive contexts.

Second, and equally important, Burke's focus upon the interrelated terms of action, motive, and substance results in both a critique of essentialism and a new link between rhetoric and ideology. Burke's interrelated notions of action and constitution, Bygrave argues, show us that any appeal to the ground of an act--that is, any appeal to the act's basis, motivation, or "cause"--simply hearkens back to other, previously-accepted acts. Simply put, Burke's rhetorical theory recognizes not only constitutional acts, but the constitutions beneath these constitutions, which rest, in turn, on further constitutions. As a result, the Burkean critic is primed to inquire beneath the sedimented "foundations" of acts, to recognize the political (and never-ending) process of interpretation that results in the taken-for-granted grounds of symbolic action (e.g. 15-17, 91-94). Bygrave thus celebrates Burke's insight and his methodology as the basis for a revitalized ideological critique, one that heralds public argument as a strategic site of contestation, of the rhetorical challenge of institutional legitimacy.

Published just three years later, Robert Wess' Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism offers a strikingly similar assessment of Burke's relevance to debates over both ideology and subjectivity. However, Wess presents his argument via a narrative of sorts, one that tracks Burke's entire career, from Counter-Statement to The Rhetoric of Religion. Burke's thought, on Wess' account, is a movement away from an early essentialism (Counter-Statement through Attitudes Toward History), toward a mature focus on language as symbolic action-a view that results in central insights on the rhetorical process of constitution, both of ideological formations and individual identities (the Grammar and Rhetoric of Motives). …

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