Kenneth Burke Burke, Kenneth (Duva) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Isidor Schneider

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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 new view of rhetoric. This word itself has become so disreputable that to call a book "rhetorical" is to condemn it offhand. It is confused with bad rhetoric and is conceived of as a set of professional tricks employed to cheat and confuse the reader….

Mr. Burke says that rhetoric, far from being artifice, is the most natural and constant feature of literature. It is formed to the reader's desires, which it stimulates and fulfills. It is a use of the reader's emotions by a technique that knows how to arouse them, allay them, charge them and discharge them, concentrate them and scatter them by rhythm, by contrasts, by delays, by evasions; in short, by being psychologically the master of the situation….

In the part of the book to which the title "Counter-Statement" may be applied, we change from the serene and broad light of discovery to the flickering lanterns of controversy. Recalling that the content of most classical literature was familiar to its audience and that the writer then obtained his effects by his unhindered play with the prepared mind, Mr. Burke makes a comparison with modern writers dealing with audiences whose minds are unprepared who can be appealed to chiefly by the shocks of surprise, by a constant supply of new information. Realism is the literature of information; and as opposed to the psychology of form using...

(The entire section is 1156 words.)

Charles I. Glicksberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 with speculative material that requires careful analysis. He is too skeptical, too discriminating and iconoclastic a thinker. His preoccupation with the nature of meaning, his command of a style that is laboriously precise—these alone will cause him to remain the intellectual leader of a small minority. He is the critic's critic par excellence. Not that he is unable to write simply; he does, in fact, write simply; but the material he deals with is often so recondite and complex that no other style seems possible for his scrupulous and exacting intelligence. (pp. 74-5)

The general public is not interested in questions of form, methods of appeal, the morphology of style, terminological consistency, pure truth. And yet there are few critics writing at the present time who are exerting a more pronounced, though subterranean, influence than Kenneth Burke. If in the future American criticism moves in the direction of increased clarity, precision, and understanding, it will be due in no small measure to the important contributions made by this comparatively young critic.

His reputation, such as it is, rests on two books, Counter-Statement and Permanence and Change, both of which are concerned with the basic principles of criticism. Counter-Statement attempts to present a coherent point of view, which is "somewhat apologetic, negativistic, and even antinomian, as regards everything but art." He does more than construct the scaffolding of a general critical theory; he endeavors to interpret and evaluate a number of significant writers—Thomas Mann, Gide, Pater, and Flaubert—in the light of this theory. In one chapter, entitled "Program," he tries to come to terms with the socio-economic conception of art. Even then he had already arrived at the conclusion that life is conditioned by the social structure, though he had not yet made up his mind as to the nature of the conditioning process or in what manner society should be reformed. He had not yet taken the plunge into the deep and troubled waters of literary Marxism. (pp. 75-6)

Permanence and Change covers a vast terrain of thought. It seeks to postulate a philosophy of social values as well as to present a critique of social thought and expression. His method of achieving perspective through incongruity, of hunting for the antithesis of what has been taken for granted in various fields of action and speculation, comes into full play. The instrument of logic is wielded like a surgical knife cutting away diseased or superfluous tissue. Intellectually enterprising and ingenious, he succeeds in introducing a rich varied assortment of provisional ideas and in overhauling our whole critical vocabulary. (p. 76)

The problems which Burke takes up are fundamental to an understanding of our age. Science, he feels, has advanced too far and at too fast a rate for us to adjust our spiritual and mental resources to the revolution. Arguing that there is an important distinction between scientific and artistic truth, he maintains that a poet may develop a belief which he knows to be false. The poet writes "as if" what he says is true. All that the artist can do is to endeavor to be consistent and sincere within the framework of the fiction he constructs. "The 'sum total' of art relieves the artist of the need of seeing life steadily and seeing it whole."

In Permanence and Change, Burke's attitude towards science has crystallized. Though recognizing the achievements of science, he points out the great harm that scientific thought has done. It has created a closed universe; it has transformed man into a machine conditioned by his material environment; it has stripped him of the illusion of free will, which is at the heart of ethics. Burke distrusts the arbitrary ideology perfected and dictated by science. Something is lacking in the scientific ideal, he insists, which is tremendously important for mankind. Negatively we are given to understand that science leaves out of account a number of moral and religious affirmations without which man cannot create a satisfying metaphor of the universe, a convincing world-orientation. (pp. 76-7)

Burke's method of rationalizing the revolt against science is extremely interesting…. The scientific rationalization, he believes, must be corrected by a move "in the direction of the anthropomorphic or poetic." Poetry by taking the place of religion may yet save the world. The philosophic corrective that he envisages would derive support from biology and would also satisfy pragmatic needs. A rationale of art—art in its widest sense as an art of living—would thus supplant an inadequate scientific rationalization. Why should the universe, he asks, be forced to fit into a man-made system of communication, "particularly when there is so strongly a creative or poetic quality about its goings-on"? One stops to wonder whether the philosophic corrective he so earnestly recommends is not manmade, too.

Perhaps the weakest, the least convincing part of Burke's work is that which seeks to overthrow the Goliath of science…. It is sheer sentimentalism to assert that the progress of science is...

(The entire section is 2723 words.)

W. H. Auden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 713 words.)

John Crowe Ransom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marius Bewley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stanley Edgar Hyman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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George Knox

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1460 words.)

Louis Fraiberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Geoffrey Hartman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Wayne C. Booth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,…...

(The entire section is 1890 words.)