A Grammar of Motives

by Kenneth Burke

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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 practice for contemporary criticism. Jameson illustrates the ways in which Burke steps back from, or evades, the challenge of ideological analysis. According to Jameson, Burke is content to limit the field of his analysis to the purely formal relations of the grammar. Jameson identifies three typical “strategies of containment”—the notion of art as ritual, the appeal to the bodily dimension of the verbal act, and the concept of the self as the basic preoccupation of literature in general—which Burke employs to impede the natural tendency of the dramatistic method toward the analysis of the ideological role of literary and cultural texts. In Jameson’s opinion, the shrunken role reserved for the five terms of Burke’s dramatism is symptomatic of Burke’s evasion of social and political forces which represent the true historical source of motivation.

Lentricchia, on the other hand, takes as a cardinal achievement Burke’s notion of the decentering paradox of substance, which opens up to analysis an area of ambiguity where transformations take place (at the point where synchrony and diachrony intersect) and where an act can be considered from the perspective of its substance or its sub-stance—that is, in terms of its text or context. It is this concern with diachrony, with history, which distinguishes Burke’s work from that of the New Critics and the deconstructionists. According to Lentricchia, Burke’s strategic placement of his analysis at the intersection of synchrony and diachrony makes it possible for him to avoid “the reductions of structuralism” as well as the “vaporization of history in the name of Derrideanism.”

Both Jameson and Lentricchia, in their discussions of A Grammar of Motives, support their positions with representative anecdotes taken from that work. Significantly, Jameson illustrates his “strategies of containment” thesis with one of the most famous sections of the book, “Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats,” while Lentricchia takes the section on Darwin from A Grammar of Motives , in which Burke demonstrates how, in response to nineteenth century social...

(This entire section contains 778 words.)

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and political forces, Idealistic notions of agent and purpose invade Darwin’s deterministic materialism.

Jameson chooses as his target one of the “literary” appendices of A Grammar of Motives in order to illustrate with greater emphasis Burke’s resistance to ideological analysis. While the target appears somewhat tendentious, one can assent to the notion that Burke has a deep ambivalence about the manner in which historical purpose is to be admitted into his study of grammatical relations. Lentricchia, on the other hand, emphasizes those frequent moments in A Grammar of Motives when Burke does indeed move with insight from considerations of grammatical synchrony to historical analysis. If one can agree with Jameson that Burke’s instincts and ideals are fundamentally idealistic, one can nevertheless agree with Lentricchia that in hisrare integration of the resources of technical, formalist criticism and social and political investigation, . . . Burke set standards for the ideological role of intellectuals that contemporary critical theory would do well to measure itself by.


Critical Context