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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 778 words.)

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