Kenneth Burke: Literature and Language as Symbolic Action Analysis

Greig E. Henderson

Kenneth Burke

In the postscript to his book on Kenneth Burke, Greig E. Henderson attempts to summarize the interest for contemporary literary criticism of Burke’s theories. He proposes that Burke offers “an exemplary alternative to the linguistic nihilism [by which he basically means deconstructionist criticism] that pervades much of contemporary criticism.” The most revealing aspect of this summation is the fact that it is offered in negative terms, rather than positive: It tells the reader what Burke avoids, says what he is not. This typifies Henderson’s manner of approaching his subject, which is the source of both the work’s strengths and its weaknesses.

On one hand, Burke’s enterprise is in fact more cogently explained to nonspecialists in negative terms than in positive ones, given its accretive, syncretic nature. Yet Henderson’s primary interest is in making Burke usable for contemporary criticism. Criticism, however, rather than theory, was an activity in which Burke himself engaged only occasionally, and even then (as Henderson notes) not always in consonance with his own theories. Henderson characterizes Burke in theoretical terms as well as anyone could in a work of this length, through his contrasts and comparisons, but the result is a distinctly sanitized version of a thinker who was difficult by design rather than by accident, one that encourages the reader to see Burke as more manageable than he really is. Henderson’s book is solid rather than brilliant, useful rather than overwhelming. Yet this is already a substantial accomplishment, considering the subject.

Henderson’s use of the method of characterizing Burke by contrast is continuous and consistent. For example, the first chapter begins by delineating two basic categories of literary criticism, and places Burke by saying that he is neither one alone, and both at once. Following the celebrated distinction of Rene Wellek and Austin Warren in their Theory of Literature (1949), Henderson contrasts “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” approaches to literature: those theories interested in factors internal to the work of art, and those interested in factors external to it. (Henderson hastens to say that these categories overlap, and that the distinction itself is fluid.) Burke’s interest for Henderson is that he combines aspects of both; he “merges” the two categories.

If this makes Burke seem refreshingly open-minded, refusing to limit himself either to the work (as the New Critics are conceived of as having done) or to factors outside of it (as Freudian or Marxist critics sometimes do), it also makes him for just this reason a rather difficult figure to emulate. Indeed, not many critics have been willing to do so. Henderson quotes Fredric Jameson, who points out that Burke “has not engendered any substantial critical following.” Yet this is hardly surprising, for Burke’s approach, in Henderson’s words, “violates canons of compartmentalization, outrages good taste, and is frankly speculative.” What this means is that Burke’s tendency to outrage and his violation of canons were not something incidental to his work, but instead fundamental to it. Yet it is also for this reason that Henderson’s attempt to be sober and just on the subject of Burke gives the sense of having somehow missed the mark. After all, this kind of inherently reactive, syncretic thought claims to be posterior to all other theories: Name another approach, this point of view says, and that too is part of the theory. Is it likely that it would take kindly to the kind of posterior putting-it-in-its- place kind of characterization that Henderson offers?

The fact that Burke’s theory refused categorical boundaries, however, is precisely what allows one to characterize its general drift. Henderson points out that Burke repeatedly emphasized the rhetorical aspect of texts, and “replac[ed] the static model of the text with a dramatic one.” He insisted that the work of literature is inherently intertwined both with the world that produced it and with the reader on whom it acts. As a result, Burke called the method of analysis that would consider both intrinsic and extrinsic aspects “dramatism.” It was based on his notion of ’the poem as act,” his insistence that literature is “a response to a situation,” and on his notion of “literature and language as symbolic action.” Burke’s emphasis was repeatedly on the extent to which literature can change action; as Henderson puts it, “literature makes something happen.”

So too, it seems, does literary criticism. Burke saw himself as shaking the...

(The entire section is 1893 words.)


Horns of Plenty. II, Spring, 1989, p.50.