Burke, Kenneth (Duva)
Kenneth (Duva) Burke 1897–
American critic, philosopher, translator, poet, and short story writer.
Burke has been considered a very difficult critic to classify. Because of his advocacy of a close reading of the text and his strong interest in the theories of I. A. Richards, Burke has been associated with many of the New Critics. However, believing that the "main idea of criticism … is to use all that there is to use," Burke draws upon his knowledge of linguistics, psychology, theology, and sociology to produce a diverse body of literary criticism.
Burke's perceptive and complex reading of a text has brought him great acclaim from his fellow literary theorists. Yet his audience has been limited to this select group due to the eclectic and erudite nature of his approach.
(See also CLC, Vol. 2 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
["Counter-Statement"] is a work of revolutionary importance introducing a principle that brings a natural, not a dialectic, clarity into the field of esthetics. It is important (in spite of its title) as statement. What there is in it of counter-statement is of less consequence.
Mr. Burke's new principle is so sane, so sure and useful a standard for esthetic judgment that one wonders how it could have been possible for the many thoughtful and brilliant writers on the subject to have avoided discovering it. The fact is, of course, that the principle is implicit in the work of all sensitive critics, but has never been released in direct statement and has, therefore, never been available for direct application.
The clue to it, I believe, Mr. Burke found in I. A. Richards's experimental studies in the psychology of reader reactions. Richards, coolly exposing his students to unidentified examples of poetry and tabulating their responses, probably provided Mr. Burke with the original data for his discovery, which is announced and developed in the two remarkable essays, Psychology and Form and The Poetic Process. The subsequent essays, Lexicon Rhetoricae and Application of Terminology, form a more ambitious but, to my taste, a less necessary and less palatable restatement and elaboration of the idea in the form of a new vocabulary of rhetoric….
[The principle] is, in essence, a...
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Charles I. Glicksberg
A subtle and adventurous critic, Kenneth Burke is willing to follow the trail of an idea wherever it may lead, without regard to established sanctities of meaning. In a style that is logical, compact, almost wearisome in its insistence on defining terms and clarifying meanings, he ventures upon the ambitious task of reappraising all hitherto existing critical values. This involves him in a study of linguistics, logic, anthropology, psychology, and methodology. His method—the utilization of the principle of polarity—is simple but daring: he takes a number of commonly accepted truths and values, reduces them to their elementary premises, and then quietly inquires if the converse could not be regarded as equally true. This process he calls achieving perspective through incongruity. In other words, he demonstrates that a statement may be both true and false at the same time. Its "truth" depends on the frame of reference within which it is situated, the point of orientation from which it is viewed. By means of this method he is able to puncture the pretensions of many a vested critical system. His primary object is to secure terminological exactitude by reducing meanings, which are essentially social in origin and purpose, to their component elements.
It is not likely that Kenneth Burke will be widely read or that he will receive generous public recognition. The reason is not far to seek. His books are too technical, packed too solidly...
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W. H. Auden
[In The Philosophy of Literary Form,] Mr. Burke stands in the line of critics like Richards and Empson whose key questions are: What does poetry mean? Why is it written? How does it accomplish its end? Such a criticism could only arise within a society which says: "I don't like poetry." It presupposes statements like: "Poetry is wrong because it says things which aren't true," or, "Poetry is wrong because it doesn't do anything useful." It is, in fact, literary apologetics and, like most apologetics, concerned less with the conversion of the heathen than with keeping up the morale of the faithful by showing that it can use the same weapons as well as or better than the enemy: against the logician it develops a more rigorous method of verbal analysis; against the psychologist and the sociologist it adopts the approaches of Freud and Marx.
No isolated quotations can do justice to Mr. Burke's subtlety and good sense, and no doubts that one may entertain about the soundness of his critical position can obscure the fact that he is unquestionably the most brilliant and suggestive critic now writing in America….
The limitations of [Mr. Burke's views] are those of any purely defensive position. Very honestly Mr. Burke admits the correctness of Mr. Blackmur's objection that "[his] method could be applied with equal fruitfulness to Shakespeare, Dashiell Hammett or Marie Corelli," and justifies himself by saying: "You...
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John Crowe Ransom
I have read several times the long title essay of Kenneth Burke's book The Philosophy of Literary Form, and still with the sense of an adventure. It is like following the intrepid explorer who is making a path through the jungle. I indicate the range and density of the speculative field, which is poetic theory, and junglelike; and also the emancipation of Burke the explorer's mind from common academic restraints—especially from the overall cast of sobriety which he, in a cold tone, calls "neo-Aristotelian." If he suffers from a restraint, I should think it is a constitutional distaste against regarding poetic problems as philosophic ones. I suppose his feeling may be that poetry is something bright and dangerous, and philosophy is something laborious and arid, and you cannot talk about the one in the terms of the other without a disproportion, and breach of taste. Who would not understand that? Aesthetics has been the fumbling chapter of philosophy. But I believe the philosophers themselves undergo the worst fits of depression, and have to wait for courage to return before they can resume their remote speculations with the right passion. (pp. 47-8)
[There] are some streamlined modern "sciences" which might be persuaded to explain poetry without benefit of philosophy. Burke's procedure is to work them for all they are worth, both severally and jointly, and then to supplement them with an ingenious all-out critique of his...
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Since the publication of A Grammar of Motives in 1945 Kenneth Burke has become firmly lodged in the consciousness of an influential group of American writers as a critic almost exquisitely rare, abounding with ideas and enviably in control of the wide range of new knowledge that characterizes the present century. If not widely read—if at times even unreadable—he has had a genuine influence on a few good critics, and, at a more general level, he has become a paradigm of the deliberately serious, a state of affairs to which his unreadability (such as it is) has no doubt contributed. 'Burke's ethical doctrine, the "neo-liberal ideal"', writes a recent and enthusiastic appraiser, 'advanced pan-realism definitely into the realm of the pragmatic'. So we see that Burke is not being taken lightly. (p. 254)
[His] criticism has the support and encouragement of a considerable group—and it is a group that has a good chance of growing in influence. This critical popularity is partly owing to the fact that although Burke has committed himself against the technological aspect of contemporary society he has evolved a 'methodology' of criticism that cannot help playing into the hands of those to whom technology may be much less present as a danger. In other words, though Burke's virtues are his own, he has certain qualities easily transmissible as vices at precisely that level he most thoroughly deplores. Another reason for a...
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Stanley Edgar Hyman
The reason reviewers and editors have had such trouble fastening on Burke's field is that he has no field, unless it be Burkology. In recent years it has become fashionable to say that he is not actually a literary critic, but a semanticist, social psychologist, or philosopher. A much more accurate statement would be that he is not only a literary critic, but a literary critic plus those things and others…. The lifelong aim of Burke's criticism has been … the unification of every discipline and body of knowledge that could throw light on literature into one consistent critical frame. Opposing every pious or conventional view that would exclude one critical tool or another as "improper," Burke has insisted: "The main ideal of criticism, as I conceive it, is to use all that is there to use." (pp. 374-75)
Burke has set out to do no less than to integrate all man's knowledge into one workable critical frame. In the course of that, he has set out to turn psychology on literature, has discovered that he would first have to synthesize one consistent psychology from the warring schools, has done it; then discovered the same need to integrate sociologies; then work both together as a social psychology; then add linguistics and semantics to the formula; still later add philosophies and theologies; finally, to turn the whole tremendous mass on a poem. His aim, as stated in the conclusion to Permanence and Change, has been...
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From about 1940, just about everybody who is anybody in literary criticism, or who would like to be thought of as having something to say about anybody who is anybody in literary criticism, has taken a try at placing Kenneth Burke. A few contemporaries have ventured into the risky game of putting him in his place. Many have attempted to identify themselves with Burke; many have taken over much of his terminology; many have tried out his methods; and, finally, perhaps more presumptuously, a few are trying to explain him. (p. xv)
Are not a critic's works generally sufficient in themselves? If they need some elaborate explication or breakdown, have they not, in effect, been replaced by the work which purports to explicate them? I think the answer is often enough negative…. Assuming the value of what Burke has to say for students of literary analysis and just plain readers, we find that certain blocks prevent his proper dissemination. We are zealous for his reputation, and not enough people who could profit from reading him at present have the proper opportunity. The reasons are: (1) Burke's style makes him too often difficult for the uninitiated to read; (2) Burke's work is so diverse and scattered that the general reader cannot see him whole; (3) Burke is worth the struggle. (p. xvi)
[To] say that Burke eludes easy categorization is not to excuse oneself for a job half done. He is always in progress. Although the...
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[In "Freud—and the Analysis of Poetry"] Burke concludes his preliminary "placing" of psychoanalysis with a mysterious allusion to an event which, despite the assurance with which he states it, never took place. The critic, he suggests, cannot rely wholly upon symbolism for his understanding of literature. Another approach is necessary.
The important matter for our purposes is to suggest that the examination of a poetic work's internal organization would bring us nearer to a variant of the typically Freudian free-association method than to the purely symbolic method toward which he subsequently gravitated.
Freud, of course, never abandoned the psychoanalysis of neurotic patients by free-association, and there is no record that he ever contemplated doing so. On the contrary, he always regarded the analysis of the dream by this method as the "royal road to the unconscious." He never adopted a symbolism in which meanings were fixed and completely predictable—since they necessarily alter in significance according to variations in the context—nor did he "gravitate" toward one. If Burke has any authority for saying so, he does not cite it. He ignores Freud's objections to those who, like Stekel, did adopt a dream-book technique in which each symbol had a fixed interpretation. On the other hand, Burke's suggestion to literary critics that they use a "variant" of the free-association...
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[Kenneth Burke's Language as Symbolic Action reveals] a mind for which the gods seem to have decreed equal shares of fertility and futility. Burke has produced a body of literary and social criticism second only to that of Edmund Wilson, yet it has not "added up." He has been less careful of his audience than Wilson, more interested in the permutation of his ideas, more self-indulgent and obsessive in his concerns. This is only one of many paradoxes surrounding Burke, for in his writings there is constant talk of "plays" and "strategies," and his theory of dramatism, as well as that of symbolic action, implies something beyond a merely personal catharsis….
Burke has been asking central questions about life, literature and method for 40 years, and his first collection of essays, Counter-Statement (1931), published in the same year as Wilson's Axel's Castle, helped to prove that American criticism was as vigorous and speculative as criticism on the Continent. But the promise of the Thirites did not reach fruition. Whereas Continental thought culminated in the difficult philosophical observations of Heidegger, Adorno, Bachelard, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and the Structuralists, American criticism was tempted to relapse into a piecemeal pragmatism and an ad hoc approach to theory. This is not to say that American criticism is now inferior; only that it is less theoretical, and more surrounded by implicit...
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Wayne C. Booth
[Burke's subject matter] is clearly language and the way symbolic communication is effected through language. He sees both poems and criticism as manifestations of a universal human activity, symbolic action, and thus not primarily as the making of objects or the formulation of static thoughts or truths.
There are two major kinds of critics who make this choice, and Burke's method places him with those who are primarily interested in pursuing the similarities between poetry as language and other symbolic actions, not with those who want primarily to pursue differences and to consider poetry in its unique quality. Though Burke attempts to do justice to poetry in its distinctiveness,… he is really much more interested in what poetry does for poets and audiences than in what it is or how it is constructed. He seeks its special way of doing what other human actions also do. Poems compete, console, warn, celebrate, attack, defend, lament, purge, build (or destroy) community; the list is potentially as long as the indefinitely long list of human motives.
Similarly, his principles are finally holistic or assimilative, remaining constant as he moves from field to field, even while the surface of his work reveals an iridescent variety. His definition of man, for example, as the symbol-making and symbol-using animal is itself not subject to change but only to elaboration. And he...
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