Early Burkean Corpus

3.0 Overview

In order to demonstrate the systematic and systemic nature of Burke's theory of symbolic action, the following two chapters will employ one of Burke's favorite methods--the tracking and tracing of the interrelationships of key terms: system, symbolic action and scientism. For each major phase of Burke's career, a brief biography will be provided sketching what events and figures are influencing him. In addition, each of the analyses of Burke's eight major texts will include a brief statement of what Burke is trying to accomplish and how this volume furthers his project to understand symbolic action.

A major section will then be devoted to how Burke is countering scientism, since knowing what Burke is against is helpful in seeing what he is for. The next major section will distill out the systems ideas in terms of his method, his theory and his subject matter. When relevant, we will note how each book was received, since this will also provide some clues as to the intellectual climate Burke is reacting against, and provide critiques of his system. Finally, each section will provide a summary of which elements of system theory are new in each text, and which ideas are carried over. (This is particularly useful because Burke is forever coining or modifying terms for his own purposes, often discarding and renaming them.)

3.1 Early Years

As noted in the introductory chapter, both Burke's strengths and weaknesses are attributable to his being an autodidact. After brief stints at Ohio and Columbia, he persuaded his father to give him the money intended for his tuition and went to live in Greenwich Village with other young avant-garde writers. He began "reading systematically through the classics, modern French, German and English fiction and poetry, and philosophy" (Jay 6).

In New York Burke became something of a renegade, and was deeply involved in the literary debates of the day. Burke was very much influenced by Continental literature, particularly French novelists Flaubert and Gide, and Baudelaire and the French Symbolist poets. He planned to go to Europe, but was rejected for military service; instead he worked in a shipyard. In 1922 Burke began to feel that the critical began to overshadow the creative and he soon became an editorial assistant at The Dial, where he worked until it closed in 1929 (Jay 151-152).

3.2 Counter-Statement

Counter-Statement (1931) is a product of Burke's early aesthetic period, but even here we see the crucial shift from literary criticism to communication. Burke began his critical career trying to account for the aesthetic effects of literature. His specific goal in this book was to develop critical terms that would account for the strategies in Shakespearean drama (215). But in trying to account for the aesthetic effects of literature, he realized the importance of form, which he felt resides in both the author and the audience (124). Moreover, his rhetorical training led him to wonder about the cultural situation which gave rise to the work and about the mind of the audience that would read it. As a result, he began thinking about literature in systems terms.

As a result of his broad approach, in Counter-Statement Burke begins his lifelong opposition to positivism and to the mechanistic metaphor; his aesthetics is anti-machine, anti-practical (109-11). The machine metaphor is central to scientism's analysis of human thought and behavior (e.g., clockworks, telephone switchboard, computer). In Burke's derogation of "practical" we find a hint of the dichotomy that provides the basis for his definition of symbolic action: machines and animals have practical, nonsymbolic motion, whereas humans can create action (an important distinction for Burke, as we shall see, particularly from the Forties onward).

In Counter-Statement, as critics often note, are the roots of much of Burke's later work. Here he establishes several systems ideas which will become mainstays of his philosophy: 1) the importance of form; 2) a symbol system is composed of a network of associations; 3) art (later symbol) is an adjustment to a situation. In order to account for the effect of literature on an audience, he must deal with the psychology of form (using Freud) and social context (using Marx). A central idea established in this volume that prompted the synthesis of Marx and Freud, and that will recur in a number of incarnations, is the idea of art as an adjustment to a situation (Hyman 348).19 It can readily be seen how this seminal idea would involve both psychology and sociology.

In retrospect, Burke himself acknowledges the importance of his essay "Psychology and Form" in this book. This essay explores the importance of form for human beings. He asserts that form is built into the psyche, and that "form-al" excellence is the aim of art. The audience gets pleasure in seeing the underlying form, seeing order and simplicity underneath the apparent complexity of the world (a major function of metaphor). In this manner, the artist helps the audience adjust to a particular situation. Burke posits that an artist wants audiences to see a situation in a certain way so that they can have the proper response to it. In this way an artist protects and unifies a society.

In this book we also see Burke not only considering the social and psychological systems, but the interrelationships between them, an interdisciplinary approach characteristic of systems thought. Burke is also prescient in asserting that while some forms are natural (i.e., what later theorists will call bodily, orientational or archetypal metaphors), others are cultural, or learned (126, 140-141). Regardless of origin, any form can become conventional. Counter-Statement seems to be about literature, but it is really the beginning of an analysis of the relationships among mind, language and culture (1984b xxv). Burke will subsequently develop this idea, asserting that an infant (literally "no words") becomes a member of a society by learning its symbol system and then its system of classification and values.

Though there is little discussion of system per se in Counter-Statement, the basis is clearly established. Burke's concern with form, audience and cultural context leads him to grapple with three interrelated systems: in trying to account for language (literature), he is forced to consider the mind and culture, and the interrelations among the three. Inevitably, he employs the major figure who deals with each, Marx and Freud, though always on his own terms. In doing this, Burke demonstrates both systemic and systematic tendencies. S. E. Hyman states that, "Like Bacon, Burke has set out to do no less than to integrate all man's knowledge into one workable critical frame" (Rueckert 1969 375).

As we noted in the last chapter, both Marx and Freud are thinking about systems. Freud applied the model of system (the steam engine, with safety valves and compensatory mechanisms) that then informed physiology. Marx too exhibits the beginnings of a systemic point of view: one class evolves from another towards a certain end (in this case the triumph of the proletariat). Such teleological thinking is characteristic of a systems approach. The systemic aspects of Marxist and Freudian theories undoubtedly reinforced Burke's own systemic thinking.

Other elements of systems thought are discernable in Counter-Statement. For Burke, it is a given that language is a symbol system. But he goes further to posit that a culture is a system of patterns of experience. He defines a symbol as the verbal parallel to these experiential patterns of judgments and beliefs (155). Systems thinking is especially evident in Burke's assertion that a culture or ideology will vary with the individual and period, but it has a stable core unaffected by variations. Even more remarkable is Burke's intuition about how such systems are formed: assumptions can be aligned in order to create an ideological system (111).

While Burke believed that an artist is a product of his cultural system, he also observes that artists can create their own clusters of terms, which must be analyzed in order to fully understand a work of art (23). Clearly, Burke wants critics to view a text as a system. He asserts that a work of art is organic, made up of events that change with context, but nonetheless retain sufficient identity to be recognizable and have a name (127). This last assertion too is clearly indicative of systems thought. Because a work of art is organic, its interrelationships demand investigation (128).

Evidence of a systems approach is also apparent in Burke's influences in this volume. We have already noted Marx and Freud, but perhaps the greatest influence on Burke is Aristotle, who, as we saw in the last chapter, is also a major source for General Systems Theory. More contemporary influences on Burke include Nietzsche and his disciple Oswald Spengler. Nietzsche, along with Remy De Gourmont, was the source of one of Burke's favorite critical tools, "perspective by incongruity" (this involves reversing common sense ideas in order to get a new perspective, e.g., invention is the mother of necessity) (1984a 308). Nietzsche was also doubtless influential in Burke's consideration of the interrelationships among mind, language and culture (Henderson 86). Spengler's contention that a culture was like an organism no doubt influenced Burke. Additionally, S.T. Coleridge may have informed Burke on the importance of metaphor.

In his early books Burke begins his defense of metaphor, which as later chapters will show is really the principle of transformation in symbol systems. Though Burke classes metaphor as one of the minor or incidental forms in this text, he does acknowledge that metaphor is natural, a function of the way that the mind works. Burke also asserts that aesthetic or metaphorical truth is as valid as scientific truth (168-9). In subsequent texts metaphor assumes an increasingly important position, partly because it is crucial (it has always been central to rhetorical theory), and partly because it is a phenomenon with which positivist science was least able to cope.


3.2.1 Summary

Despite being a work of literary criticism, Counter-Statement places Burke squarely on the path to a systemic theory. In particular, Burke's theory of form is essential to all that comes after (xi). His thinking on form anticipates the schema theory which currently is important in cognitive science and metaphor theory, as we shall see in the concluding chapter. Also important is Burke's insight that networks are made up of clusters of terms. Here this idea is amorphous and intuitive, and Burke seems to be thinking mostly in terms of texts. However, in subsequent books he will try to demonstrate the existence of these associative networks and how they are manipulated (symbolic action) in order that human beings can "make themselves at home" in the world. Also crucial to Burke's subsequent work is his realization that art is a reaction to a situation; because he is thinking about psychology and social context, a systems approach becomes inevitable.

3.3 Thirties Biography

In 1929 The Dial closed because of the Great Depression. Burke had a number of jobs there, but his primary responsibility was as a music critic. Nevertheless, he reviewed a wide variety of books as well, including psychology, anthropology, biology, art and even astronomy. After The Dial folded, Burke scraped by writing reviews for The Nation and The New Republic, and moved away from poetry. Though neither Burke nor his family suffered serious privation, the economic collapse had a profound effect on him. The epistemological crisis of the country led to a similar crisis in Burke himself. No doubt seeing the collapse of the economic system led him to think about systems in economic terms. (He will later speak of the "psychic economy," and a "poetry exchange" analogous to a stock exchange.)

Burke says that he became more economically minded during the Depression, and he began gathering material for a book on business practices. In the process of his research, he came across the Pujo Report (which more or less accomplished what he had in mind), so he shifted his focus to the motives behind those practices. This line of research prompted the beginnings of his speculations about purpose (the subtitle of his next book is "An Anatomy of Purpose").

3.4 Permanence and Change

In Permanence and Change (written 1932-3, published 1935), Burke moves further away from aesthetics and more toward interpretation and communication in general. He is also moving from literary criticism to social criticism, assisted no doubt by the troubled economic times and by being berated publicly in a review of Counter-Statement by Granville Hicks (and by his friends privately) for not being more political. He rebutted the charge by asserting that the "Program" section of Counter-Statement was, in fact, political.

Burke came to feel increasingly strongly that not only was art a reaction to a historical and political situation, but that it had a responsibility to shape the political landscape. Again, Marx was an important influence on Burke as a thinker and critic, though he never joined the party because he felt that Marx "had left no blueprints" for building a better society, and that at any rate Burke was "not a joiner" (though his association with the Writer's Conference would cause him difficulties much later) (Heath 14). Burke expressed gratitude to his friends who were in fact Communists for helping him to overcome his own epistemological crisis, and declared that Permanence and Change was the sort of book written to keep the author from falling apart (1984b xlvii).

Burke claims that Permanence and Change was an outgrowth of Counter-Statement (1984b 314), as to a degree all his work is, but it is convenient to view the next three books as outgrowths of Burke's social concerns of the Thirties. Critics have noted that Attitudes Toward History provides footnotes in a way for Permanence and Change, while The Philosophy of Literary Form is an application of the theory put forth in Permanence and Change (Frank 81). The specific aim of Permanence and Change is to show how an "orientation," or world view, structures the way that human beings perceive and act in the world. Identifying and analyzing such cognitive systems is an important first step in understanding symbolic action, which is the manipulation of such systems. In order to demonstrate that language is central to symbolic action, Burke must first disarm the scientistic point of view which long sought to dismiss the importance of language and explain human thought and action as mechanical or instinctual.

3.4.1 Contra Scientism

In Permanence and Change Burke questions the value of scientism, asserting that experiments with lower animals can tell us little about the symbol-using animal, since the laws of simple conditions may not apply to complex conditions (29). We noted in the introductory chapter that Burke has grave objections to human motives being reduced to a simple stimulus-response model, or primitive drives. Burke asserts that the prestige of the physical sciences has allowed their methodology to be imported to realms (i.e., higher level systems) where they do not apply, though because their claims cannot be easily tested, it is difficult to evict them (101). Burke offers his own methods as a philosophical corrective to such reductive methodology.

As a corrective to the mechanistic model, Burke proposes the organic or poetic (which he also equates here with the dramatic model, later to become his primary one) because it takes more into account (266). The organic model is the basis for the systems approach, and Burke's systemic view no doubt influenced by readings in Woodger's biology and Gestalt psychology. The nineteenth century's basic metaphor was linear (e.g., electricity as current), whereas the twentieth century is to be dominated by the organic or field metaphors: e.g., Albert Einstein, Alfred North Whitehead's "philosophy of organism," and General Systems Theory. Burke observes that even physics is moving toward a more or less biological metaphor (229). It is not surprising, then, that Burke proposes a "metabiology" rather than a metaphysic.20

Burke enlists D. H. Lawrence as champion of the biological point of view. Lawrence stresses the biological or creative, seeing the universe as a process whose purpose is to foster life (rather like the Gaia Hypothesis). In a move reminiscent of Burke, he privileges the biological as prior and therefore primary, while relegating the mechanical to a secondary (and hence non-essential) status (224). Burke argues that science reverses the pathetic fallacy in applying an inanimate metaphor in order to "coerce biologic operations" (216).

In addition to the biological metaphor, Burke uses the metaphor of an economy to theorize about the psyche, either model being a much better analogy than Newtonian clockworks, and both providing, he hoped, "an undeniable point of reference" (261). Many of these ideas have remarkably close affinities with the critique of classical science by General Systems Theory, which shares with Burke a suspicion of attempts to separate an organism from its environment (232).

3.4.2 System

In Permanence and Change Burke begins to deal with systems as systems, as the very title might suggest.21 Burke introduces as a key term "orientation," which can be seen as roughly equivalent to a world view. Burke refers to an orientation, in its most tentative form, as an interpretive network. But he also refers to an orientation (in somewhat stronger terms) as "a self-perpetuating system, in which each part tends to corroborate the other parts" (169). The system survives insofar as it is an accurate reflection or interpretation of the world; Burke points out that an orientation tends to be a self-confirming system as well. That is, one will see the world in terms (almost literally) of one's orientation; different orientations will find different facts. This is one reason for Burke's relentless pluralism: one system can act as a corrective of another, showing faulty cause and effect linkages.

Burke contends that an orientation cannot be judged based on its being right or wrong, but rather as accurate enough for one's purposes or not. He is especially interested in what happens when an interpretive system lags behind changes in the world (78). We have noted that systems tend to be self-confirming, and it is not surprising that humans are protective of them, since their absence leads to powerlessness, chaos, insanity and, ultimately, extinction. Burke borrows a theological term for this conservative tendency: piety. Piety is the adherence to a system of terms and their relationships. Piety is a system builder, since it leads to a desire to "round things out," and hence to create a unified whole (74). Piety is the sense of "what goes with what"; here we begin to get a sense of the system as a classification scheme for the purpose of evaluation. To reorient the system means to change its alignments and classifications, generally so that it can remain apt.

Though the system sets up resistance to reorientation (if it did not, it would not remain an organized, coherent system long; this is why living systems have permeable but discriminating boundaries), minor changes happen all the time as the system "learns" and expands. In the case of humans, infants acquire the rudiments of the classification and evaluation system, which is revised and extended as children mature (e.g., the young Burke experienced something of a blow when he discovered that the majestic lion was a cat rather than a dog).

Despite their flexibility and potential for growth, at times even mature systems encounter phenomena that cannot be accounted for. Often these anomalies can be dealt with by the creation of a new metaphor or the modification of an old one. But if the system fails too often (or in an important situation), and cannot be easily repaired or extended, we have the condition A. MacIntyre calls an epistemological crisis. Burke is no doubt interested in such phenomena because the Great Depression threw the country into such a condition, and Burke as well. Such crises call for a radical reordering of the system; so radical in fact that terms once considered opposite can become classed together. Burke's example of this phenomenon in an individual is the conversion experience: Saul becomes Paul and his despised quarry becomes his beloved correligionist (156). Burke's interest in epistemological crisis will continue throughout his career, but is especially acute in his next volume, Attitudes Toward History, as he is still dealing with his own.

In his review of Permanence and Change, Charles Glicksberg notes the systematic nature of Burke's project (Rueckert 1969 71). He, however, feels that the book is too skeptical, perhaps because of Burke's attack on positivism, or because of Burke's use of perspective by incongruity. The reviewer accuses Burke of tearing down the old system without really providing a new one. William Rueckert notes that Burke spends the next three decades doing just that (80). In his review Malcolm Cowley refers to this volume as "seedful," (as opposed to fruitful) (Rueckert 1969 248). In fact, many ideas essayed here will reach fruition in subsequent works. Among these concepts are the dramatic metaphor, the defense of metaphor, guilt and victimage, and even a rudimentary model of symbolic action.

3.5 Attitudes Toward History

We noted above that Burke's Thirties books are related, and all are a reaction to the Great Depression. In Attitudes Toward History (1937) Burke develops his earlier ideas about social and ideological systems. Here he moves from the ideal cooperation of Permanence and Change to deal more with conflict and social reality. Burke's specific aim is to take a diachronic look at symbol systems, and along the way he makes some observations about the origins, constitution and function of these systems. Not surprisingly, since Burke is still dealing with the epistemological crisis caused by the Great Depression, he spends a good deal of time developing the concept of the "bureaucratization of the imaginative" (225-229). This is essentially about what happens when an idea is actually put into action (i.e., about the distortions that take place when a projected system actually comes into being). Burke is also interested in what happens when a system becomes reified, since reification, overuse, and overextension are major causes of epistemological crises.

3.5.1 System

Attitudes Toward History exemplifies important components of Burke's emerging theory of the systemic nature of symbolic action: orientations of the last book are renamed "frames of acceptance," which are "organized systems of meaning" for evaluation, interpretation and compensation (1984a 5). These frames are built from the collective frame (and tested by public discourse), which is a network composed of clusters of terms/ideas which can be transferred, modified, and charted (111, 232). At this stage the theory is still tentative and intuitive, however. Burke speaks generally of "cooperative and symbolic networks," by which he seems to mean the economy, culture, and perhaps language (234). Having rejected the mechanistic model, Burke must find an alternative, so he makes analogies between the symbol systems he is charting and the undeniably real systems of the market and the body.

Burke comes to the crucial insight that the individual's frame (mind) is based on the collective mind (culture) (341). He declares that the job of the rhetorician is to chart these systems (233). The task is daunting because, of course, these constellations of terms change over time, and different parties name the same situation in accordance with their own interests (i.e., by choosing different names/ metaphors to describe the situation, different features of the situation are declared relevant). Burke tries to establish the reality of the system and to produce a model for understanding it, the "Poetry Exchange" (202). The Poetry Exchange (analogous to a stock exchange) is a system wherein the value of a given cultural concept rises and falls in response to changes in the symbolic and/or "real" worlds. Burke states that Logical Positivism can't understand the Exchange because it doesn't know how to "discount," i.e., it can't account for metaphorical transformation, which is the basis of symbolic action (246).22

Positivism and scientism prefer to deal with entities that stay put (1984b 260), whereas Burke sets out to understand the shifting interrelationships that make up social, linguistic and psychic systems. Consequently, he must defend metaphor from positivist attack because metaphor is central to symbolic action. According to Burke, metaphor cannot be eliminated, only monitored (230). Nor can it be dismissed as irrational, because it is really non-rational (in addition, analogic thinking is much more common than formal logic). Furthermore, reason is not formal logic, but rather social logic; it is the system's way of checking itself (342). (These ideas will be treated more fully in the concluding chapter.)23

 In Attitudes Toward History not only does Burke theorize about where systems come from, but what they are made of. Systems are built from associations (68). Burke also provides clues to the composition of the system with his examination of synthesis and analogical thought. "The natural tendency of the symbolic enterprise is integration" (184), which as General Systems Theory explains is the mission of any complex system. Burke explains that such mergers and associations are the techniques for building the system. Burke apparently sees the system as an aggregation of associations. His defense of metaphor in his early books is probably not coincidental: metaphor is the vehicle for making and breaking associations par excellence. Metaphor has always been central to rhetoric, but had been dismissed by science. To reclaim rhetoric, he must make metaphor "real." In order to understand how minds really work, not as logicians think they should, we must understand analogical thinking--an idea corroborated in the works of all twentieth century rhetoricians, including I.A. Richards, Richard Weaver, Chaim Perelman and Wayne C. Booth. As cognitive science is now providing a basis for discussion, the importance and function of analogical thought will be considered in the final chapter.

  But even if Burke could not account explicitly for how the system works, he is quite clear on function: the purpose of the system is to locate an entity for the sake of evaluation. Burke's account of how this internal map or model comes into being is a systems explanation: it is a network that grows. Associative connections between entities ("what-goes-with-what") are established over time as paths are inscribed in a field. These paths can be taken over by a new orientation, just as one empire can use the roads built by the previous empire (111-112).

Burke asserts that associations combine to form clusters, a sort of proto-system. We can infer that clusters can combine further into ever larger networks that eventually form stable cultural and ideological systems. It is this constellation of concepts that Burke wants to map: "Were we to have a survey of the hills and valleys of the mind, to match our government's geological surveys, it would be done by the charting of clusters, which have a momentous effect upon history" (232-233). Even the most "practical" or "realistic" writer necessarily capitalizes on these systems of clusters (194-5). "By charting clusters, we get our cues as to the important ingredients subsumed in 'symbolic mergers'. . . . The symbol, as 'vessel,' may quite easily unite [even] logical opposites" (233).

But even a system with enough flexibility to unite logical opposites can be strained. The presence of a novel or anomalous entity forces one to re-evaluate, that is, to reorient the system of alignments that will account for the entities encountered in order to make them understandable and manageable. Burke states that the purpose of such interpretive systems is acceptance of evil and suffering (the resolution of such paradoxes and anomalies he elsewhere calls "tolerating the intolerable") (1984a 179).

3.5.2 Epistemological Crisis

Burke is very much concerned with how a system breaks down and what can be done about it, perhaps because of the ideological turmoil set off by the Depression. Burke's term for epistemological crisis is "alienation," the condition in which one no longer "owns" one's world because it has become unreasonable; one "repossesses" the world by forming allegiance to a new rationale of purpose (though this transitional period requires one to endure the "ills of interregnum" that the change of symbols of authority entails) (216). Maximum alienation occurs when one has no system of rationalization or myth of compensation in order to make the world tolerable.24

When an individual is experiencing an epistemological crisis, the first strategy employed would be to confer (mentally or verbally) with the cognitive system of the culture, checking one's thought pattern against those of the group. Interestingly, Burke calls this function "reason," which is a term reserved by scientists and logicians for formal logic:

The "social" aspect of language is "reason." Reason is a complex technique for "checking" one's assertions by public reference. And insofar as one forms his mind by encompassing such linguistic equipment, he learns to use this technique of checking "spontaneously," with varying degrees of accuracy and scope. (342)

Burke is particularly interested in systems that become outmoded. He isolates three reasons why this occurs: rigidity, overextension and overuse. Rigidity, as the name suggests, is lack of change. Burke points out that a "gang morality" can become reified, and hence its orthodoxy prevents it from adapting to changing circumstances (1984a 73). This lack of fit between the terrain and the map leads to alienation, negativity and rejection. This rejection leads to invective by the orthodox, which in turn leads to guilt in the alienated. This intolerable guilt is transcended by the formation of a splinter group in which the "deviations" of the unorthodox are justified (guilt and redemption become major themes in Burke's theory). Alternatively, someone suffering an epistemological crisis can be recruited by a rival order.

Burke also demonstrates the opposite danger of changing too much too quickly: the danger of overextending a system. He holds that a frame creates acceptance, and that it can be extended to cope with new situations, but that all systems have "Malthusian limits" (by which he seems to be making an analogy to physical limits; e.g. a cell can only grow to a certain size) (132). So while expanding a system by metaphorical or casuistic stretching can save it, such extension can also lead to demoralization (i.e., a lack of credibility, since an overextended system will appear opportunistic and unprincipled). Stretching too far will lead to breakdown, though apparently such a demise of the system can be delayed by force (e.g., an unworkable political system can be perpetuated by the army).

The final danger, related to the second, is simple overuse: the system becomes exhausted through going to the well once too often. The best example is evoking a God-term so often that it loses its evocative and exhortative power. For example, virtually every American president since Roosevelt has declared the moral equivalent of war on some problem: poverty, drugs, crime, energy waste or inflation. So routine has this strategy become that it has its own pejorative acronym, "MEOW," which is an indication of its increasing loss of efficacy.

Burke notes a number of devices which are used to deal with epistemological crisis in the Dictionary of Pivotal Terms which concludes Attitudes Toward History. Two prime examples of such devices are bridging devices and casuistic stretching (224-232). The former allows a conflict to be transcended through a symbolic merger (e.g., both capitalists and socialists can agree that liberty is good, though the word has opposite meanings: retaining vs. redistributing property). The second strategy, casuistic stretching, is the introduction of new principles while purporting to remain loyal to the old ones. Both of these strategies are for compensation, for "taking up the slack" between what is and what should be (229). Burke's sensitivity to systems thinking is evident in the fact that compensation is an important term in this book. It may derive from Burke's thinking about economic systems, but really compensation is a distinctive property of all higher order systems.25

3.5.3 Summary

With the benefit of hindsight that Burke calls "prophesying after the fact," we can see that a good deal of the structural underpinning for Burke's system theory is already in place. To wit: the prime directives of the system are to sustain and evaluate itself. In order to remain apt, the system must reorient its system of associative linkages. It must "take up the slack," or compensate. To change metaphorical names of problematic entities is a major means of reorienting the system of classifications that make up the system (213). Furthermore, Burke suggests what these systems are made of, how they arise, what they are for, and what happens to them over time. This book is Burke's only large-scale diachronic study of symbol systems. For the remainder of his long and fruitful career he will be more interested in the synchronic aspects. Burke's next book, and indeed the rest of his career is devoted to developing and applying these ideas.

3.6 The Philosophy of Literary Form

Though published in 1941, The Philosophy of Literary Form is the culmination of the work Burke was doing in the Thirties. But it is also a transitional text in that we can see the shift from investigating the structure of systems to the function of such systems. In this volume we also see the emergence of Burke's ideas on Dramatism and symbolic action as well; the Pentad is mentioned for the first time in a footnote. In addition, "symbolic action" (along with a number of alternative candidates) is used for the first time here (8). His theory of clusters (now called equations) is developed in this text as well. All of these concepts will be central to the system theory in subsequent books.

Looking back, Burke says that his specific goal in this book was to bridge the gap between what might be termed textual and contextual critics (i.e., the former, who confined themselves to the text, and the latter, who wanted to examine the political and social context and ramifications of a work). His method of analyzing clusters creates this bridge. Beginning with clusters within the text, he gradually widens his circumference until he accounts for context as well. This method, recommended in the title essay, clearly shows systems thinking: analyzing a work as a structure of organically related terms, and stressing "internality" equations embodied in "its act as an evolving unity" (1968 217).

3.6.1 System

In The Philosophy of Literary Form, as the introductory section above indicated, Burke's thinking about systems is quite evident. He apparently feels secure enough that he is dealing with systems that he discards the heuristic metaphors (e.g., Poetry Exchange) and asserts that a culture is a system: we should treat a group of people as a functioning system, not as an aggregation of individuals (74). This is precisely the kind of approach espoused by General Systems Theory. Similarly, Burke wants to regard a poem as a structure which cannot be understood without an understanding of the functioning of that structure (286).

Also reminiscent of General Systems Theory is Burke's interest in telos. He contends that a consideration of purpose is essential to the study of a poem's function. Burke likens trying to understand a poem without understanding its purpose to analyzing football purely in terms of motion. The choice of the game analogy is felicitous, but not accidental, since a game is the simplest model of symbolic action. (In games, context is minimal; rules are stipulated, thus clear. When Burke wants to take both purpose and context into account, he shifts to the dramatic metaphor.)

3.6.2 Contra Scientism

Burke's concern with system as system is evident in his continued rejection of the mechanical metaphor. Here again he asserts the primacy of the biological model (a more complex system) over the machine metaphor. In a machine, the same input results in the same output (243). In human systems (a quantum jump above biology, though grounded in it), however, identical inputs can produce opposite results; for example, sometimes political oppression creates acquiescence, while at other times a virtually identical act of repression will spark rebellion.

Although the attraction of the mechanical metaphor is strong, since the ideal of science is to explain "the complex in terms of the simple," Burke holds that the mechanical metaphor is insufficient for explaining symbolic action because "the simple is precisely what the complex is not" (262). Action is not motion, even though it is grounded in motion. The attraction of the machine model becomes even more powerful as the complexity of machine systems increases (e.g., from steam engines to telephone switchboards and computers), but Burke asserts that there is a difference in kind, not just in degree, between human systems and machines. A human mind, language or culture is a much more sophisticated kind of system, and so to treat it in terms of a machine is reductionist. (The reader will have discerned a similarity to Bertalanffy here, which will be developed in Chapter Five.)

Though Burke acknowledges that any explanation is necessarily a simplification, he nonetheless asserts that all simplifications are legitimately open to the charge of being oversimplifications--especially deterministic ones (22). Such desire for simplification leads scientists to attempt to understand adults in terms of child psychology, the sophisticated in terms of the primitive, and the normal in terms of the abnormal (22), or even worse, humans in terms of animals or machines.

Burke rebels against the trend to build generalizations about human behavior on observation of chickens. While he accepts the idea of association, he rejects stimulus-response psychology. This rejection is probably informed by Burke's growing understanding of the functioning of the symbol system. While repeated clanging of an iron bar when a rabbit is present will create a fear of anything furry in an animal or an infant, a rabbit presented to an adult can have many, even contradictory, meanings. This is because an adult subject does not respond to the stimulus per se, but to the many associated concepts which are elicited by it (159). Human beings can be conditioned, but such conditioning is not the essence of human behavior. (Human behavior is grounded in biology, but not limited to it.) As Burke observes, the only way to get humans (or even animals) to act like machines is to cut away the higher brain (wherein are found language and symbolic thought) (354).

Since the models derived from the physical sciences have difficulty dealing with multi-variable problems, however, the scientistically minded, such as the Behaviorist John B. Watson and his follower B.F. Skinner, had to reduce a process to an event with simple chains of cause and effect. Watson wanted to put psychology on the same footing as the natural sciences. Just a few years before Burke's arrival at Columbia University, Watson delivered his famous lectures that were to constitute "the Sermon on the Mount of behaviorism" (Blackmore 226). Burke repeatedly attacks Watson's reductionism in several of his books. Burke asserts that science tries to make a totality out of a fragment (138). Science must break down and isolate, and hence must ignore many aspects of human behavior; as Burke puts it, science seeks to reduce drama to scene (since when and where are quantifiable, whereas why is not) (114).

In order to be able to argue for his methodology, Burke shows the reductive nature of General Semantics and the stimulus-response psychology of the day. He also continues his defense of metaphor and analogy, arguing that the only way to test a metaphor such as "New York City is in Iowa" is to apply it; there is no formal procedure, much less using positivism's truth conditions. Finally, Burke dismisses scientistic objectivity because it relies on a static one-to-one relationship between words and things, which can never exist.

3.6.3 Equations

The evolution of Burke's systemic thinking is evident in his exhortation that a text be seen as the functioning of a structure, and that we chart its structural relations or clusters. In order to chart these clusters, Burke asks: what is equated with what, what goes with what, what leads to what, what can be substituted for what (38)? This concern with charting the equations in a text will eventually lead him to charting an ideology (which he does in The Rhetoric of Religion). He begins by charting the equations in S.T. Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," but then includes equations in other of Coleridge's works, and finally incorporates equations from his life (and epoch). From there it is a short step to examining Hitler's (the frustrated artist's) manufacturing of equations, e.g., Babylon = disunity = Vienna = poverty = immorality = incest = death = democracy (200).

This chain of associations seems absurd from the standpoint of another ideology, but it is not random. Indeed, in order to demonstrate the systematic nature of such associations, Burke gives us a test: substitution (e.g., Jews, parliamentary paralysis, or prostitution can be plugged into "______ is/are sapping our national strength," whereas sacrifice, unity, and workers cannot). Burke equates equations with values, topoi (characteristic ways of thinking), and association, so he begins to refine the connections among language, mind and culture that he only hinted at in earlier volumes (1984a 341).

We have seen in Burke's two previous books of the Thirties that he is concerned with epistemological crisis. In The Philosophy of Literary Form he is more concerned with what such crises lead to: Hitler's demagoguery. Burke knows that even a system in crisis never becomes unsystematic, and even if it is replaced by another system, there will be carryover. Knowing this allows Burke to make an insightful analysis of Hitler's rhetoric, declaring that Hitler's strategy is essentially religious in format: he creates a Mecca (Munich), declares himself patriarch, and reduces all the problems that beset the German people to a single cause: the Jewish scapegoat. Even the swastika is a recycled sacred symbol. Hitler is peddling a religious snake-oil cure, but his "crude Nazi magic" is effective because Hitler succeeded in making the world appear reasonable and manageable again (192). (We will return to this "shaman function" in the final chapter).

Hitler brought back certainty to those languishing in epistemological crisis by using the resources of the symbol system to resolve conflicts and doubt by providing "a strategy of encompassment" (1). That is, he gave the German people names that made sense of the chaos. Burke demonstrates the capability of names in his discussion of proverbs. A proverb is an exemplary type of name, since it imposes familiar relationships (a metaphorical template) on a complicated and potentially frightening situation. Such naming is magical because it transforms one kind of thing into another (For example, Aryan survival is classified as noble because it is based in self-sacrifice, while Jewish survival is linked to evil because it is based in selfishness.).

But Burke does not want this magic (i.e., the transformational and heuristic power of language) eliminated, and he realizes that it can never be done away with since only completely accurate naming can eliminate magic (7). Since no one unambiguous word exists for every event and entity, metaphor is essential and inescapable. But we must be able to see when naming is self-serving and manipulative. The most common form of manipulation involves ultimate or God-terms, since they are the most powerful abstractions. In any culture there will be such terms that have what Weaver calls "tractative" power, such as freedom, for which we are expected to sacrifice. And some people will try to use these God-terms to their own ends, by acting in the name of these terms. Moreover, the opposite, devil-terms, can be used to denigrate. For example, as Burke points out, a great deal of social legislation was defeated in America simply by calling it Communist or associating it with dictatorship (326). Burke is quite insightful on why these terms are used, and why it is important to understand them. What is lacking is a non-intuitive account for how they work, which will be essayed below.

3.7 Conclusion

Many elements of Burke's systemic theory of symbolic action are already in place: in the beginning of the volume he tells us that to name is to classify (4). Classifications lead to attitudes, which in turn lead to action (1984a 4). To change the name of a thing (i.e., to apply a different metaphor) is to change the system, hence the world view and subsequent attitudes and actions (217). The purpose of the classification system is evaluation: people like to label things, to get them placed, in order to be comfortable (8). Art assists them in sizing up a situation (his assertion in his first book); it is "equipment for living" (293). Burke says that the sizing up will be in keeping with various pre-existing attitudes (which suggests a system).

From the elements in the books we have reviewed so far, we can discern the roots of Burke's later view that human mind, language and culture are interconnected systems, the purpose of which is to evaluate the world. We have also seen the roots of his concern with purpose and motives, subjects which cannot be accounted for by mechanistic theories because true purpose and values are emergent properties of higher order systems. The accounting for motives will become his next big project. In the Motivorum, he must find a way to deal with context, hence his development of the Dramatistic metaphor and Pentad which appear in embryonic form in The Philosophy of Literary Form. Burke must develop these systemic methods in order to understand a systemic phenomenon: symbolic action.


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