The extremely idiosyncratic style and the only apparently systematic character of Burke’s critical writing in general, and of A Grammar of Motives in particular, pose formidable obstacles for the reader. Burke’s legacy is nevertheless central and exemplary insofar as it encompasses the essential terms of the dialectic of perspectives which has characterized critical discourse in the twentieth century. Burke’s dramatism distinguished itself at the outset from New Criticism by extending the grammatical analysis of motives beyond the borders of the literary text. While Burke’s method represents an anticipation of structuralism, Lentricchia finds in his interpretive practice a mode of historical analysis which foreshadows the critique of structuralism which would be mounted in the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Indeed, Burke’s attention to grammatical systems is often grounded in considerations of historical contexts, and the anecdotal and etymological analyses of A Grammar of Motives are continually slipping, tending in the direction of history. Jameson agrees with Lentricchia on this point; Jameson likens Burke’s program to that of “the founders of philology when their program foresaw the analysis of literary texts and monuments as a unique means of access to the understanding of social relations.” One might add that Burke’s system is humanistic in the sense that it embodies two elements characteristic of that tradition identified by Victoria Kahn: its resistance to theory as an epistemological project and its explicitly humanistic, pedagogical goal of educating the critical faculty in preparation for determining what is grammatically and ethically appropriate to a given historical moment.
Jameson and Lentricchia differ, however, in their evaluations of A Grammar of Motives and the implications of Burke’s critical...
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According to Armin Paul Frank, Burke’s dramatistic worldview derives from his approach to literary works as ritual drama as described and applied in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941). A Grammar of Motives represented the application of his literary dramatistic method to the general field of human motivation. It was this extraliterary program which Burke continued to “round out” in the major works which followed: A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (1961), and Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (1966). Lentricchia, on the other hand, has seen A Grammar of Motives in terms of Burke’s major early works Counter-Statement (1931), Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (1935), and Attitudes Toward History (1937).
According to Lentricchia, Burke’s “comedic formalism” developed in response to a period of traumatic economic and political crisis: “The formalisms of Burke, Brooks, and de Man have a social context, and they promise . . . in the wisdom of their comedic sense of history: a secular and literary paradise . . . in which the fruit of transcendence is not the end of history but the maximum knowledge of what history is, has been, and will be, from a privileged vantage point beyond its conflicts.”
Jameson for his part observes that, in spite of the detached and ironic distance which Burke’s dramatistic analysis establishes between the observer and history, within the historical context of the 1930’s and World War IIBurke’s stress on language, far from reinforcing as it does today the ideologies of the intrinsic and of the anti-referential text, had on the contrary the function of restoring to the literary text its value as activity and its meaning as a gesture and a response to a determinate situation.