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Kenneth Burke's discovery of


dramatism
a
Michael Feehan
a
Doctoral candidate in the
Rhetoric‐Linguistics‐Literature Program , University of
Southern California
Published online: 06 Jun 2009.

To cite this article: Michael Feehan (1979) Kenneth Burke's discovery of dramatism,
Quarterly Journal of Speech, 65:4, 405-411, DOI: 10.1080/00335637909383491

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00335637909383491

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T H E QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF SPEECH,
65 (1979), 405-11.

KENNETH BURKE'S DISCOVERY OF DRAMATISM


Michael Feehan

I N the foreword to The Philosophy


of Literary Form (1941), Kenneth
Burke recounts that he considered titling
portion to its length to Burke's de-
velopment; it synthesizes a decade's
work and concentrates central ideas in a
the book "While Everything Flows" to form leading directly to the claim that
capture the sense of changeability he felt drama is not a metaphor for but rather
about the 1930's. Some of that feeling of a model of human relations.
changeability seems to have grown out
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of changes in Burke's own thinking dur- BACKGROUND


ing those years, as he shifted from the
aesthete position of Counter-Statement "Twelve Propositions" was written as
(1931) to the more general concern for a response to a vehemently negative re-
motives in Permanence and Change view of Attitudes Toward History. The
(1935) to a focus on property as a locus review, published in the Winter, 1937,
of motives in Attitudes Toward History issue of the orthodox Marxian Science
(1937). In contrast, in the years that & Society, was written by Margaret
followed Burke manifested a singular Schlauch, an important Marxian lin-
concentration on working out the guist, who attacked Burke for the "sins"
system of Dramatism, especially in of mysticism, hostility to change, ob-
writing the series "On Human Rela- scurantism, and confusion about the
tions." In developing a model through nature of material reality. Burke chose
which to link his aesthetic and political to answer Schlauch by first abstract-
perspectives, Burke found a focus in ing the central argument of ATH and
which to synthesize a new system then answering some of Schlauch's
grounded in the ideas which had flowed specific charges. The special nature of
so continually during the 1930's. the situation Burke confronted in
writing his retort led him to make con-
A crucial document in understanding cessions to his audience which appear
that synthesis has been overlooked by
nowhere else in his career. Out of those
the critics, a document valuable not only
concessions emerged a new synthesis that
for showing Burke's debt to and trans-
refocused the arguments of ATH, a re-
cendence of Marx and Freud, but also
focusing that adumbrated the system of
for a first, clear discussion of the rela-
tions among the key elements of Dramatism.
Dramatism. The short article, "Twelve A TH deals with the "characteristic re-
Propositions by Kenneth Burke on the sponses of people in their forming and
Relation Between Economics and Psy- reforming of congregations."1 The term
chology," is significant out of all pro- "history" in the title directs attention to
political communities, while "attitudes"
Mr. Feehan is a doctoral candidate in the 1
Rhetoric-Linguistics-Literature Program, Uni- Kenneth Burke, "Introduction," in Atti-
tudes Toward History, 2nd ed. (Los Altos, Ca.:
versity of Southern California. He wishes to Hermes, 1959), p. xi. Subsequent references des-
thank Professor Walter R. Fisher for assistance ignated ATH.
in the preparation of his study.
406
QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF SPEECH DECEMBER 1979

directs attention to terminologies of re- relations between Marx and Freud,


sponse. The book, Burke noted, makes Burke foreshadowed his emergent Dra-
three inroads into its subject and closes matism.
with a summary in the form of a dic- Schlauch's review appeared in the
tionary of terms. The first section second volume of Science ir Society, a
examines the most basic attitudes to- Marxian quarterly dedicated to scholar-
ward political authorities, acceptance ship "illustrating the manner in which
and rejection; the second section pre- Marxism integrates the various scientific
sents a survey of history as a five-part disciplines and illuminates the inter-
drama; and the third section discusses dependence of science and society."3
the concept of ritual as a method of That ATH failed to meet that dedica-
analysis. The final and longest section tion is clear from the first sentence of
presents an annotated, alphabetical list- Schlauch's review: "There is both charm
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ing of the major terms necessary for a and challenge about a book of this sort,
criticism of history as ritual. which, guilelessly presenting itself as a
"Twelve Propositions," beginning philosophy of history (or philosophies?),
from the perspective of acceptance and puts on the aspect of a handbook of
rejection, focuses attention on just two poetics in the table of contents, enacts a
of the key terms from ATH: identity mystical marriage of Freudianism and
and identification. These terms, linking Marxism in sundry digressions and foot-
Marx and Freud, led Burke to a new notes, constructs a curve of history re-
understanding of his own work. Where sembling an original plot for a five-act
ATH is a tool box containing the parts drama, and concludes with a 'dictionary
necessary for the analysis of history, of pivotal terms' in which linguistic-
"Twelve Propositions" puts those parts esthetic-psychological speculation is pre-
together into a machine for criticism. dominant."4 Clearly, Burke's wanderings
Burke reduced the two volumes of A TH through history and poetics did not fit
to an eight-page discussion directed to- Schlauch's understanding of methods
ward Schlauch's objections and a con- aimed at progress toward socialism.
sciously Marxian audience: "The fol- Guideless garbling of poetics, sociology,
lowing propositions briefly state the ap- history, and psychology did not con-
proach exemplified in my recent work, stitute an approach calculated to fit well
Attitudes Toward History. They are with the Marxist community of 1937.
offered as a reply to Margaret Schlauch's The Marxists faced the rise of Ger-
review of the work, in the last number man and Italian fascism, the beginnings
of Science ir Society. They are an at- of Stalinist terror in Spain and the
tempt to codify my ideas on the relation Soviet Union, dissension over obscuran-
between psychology and Marxism."2 tism and revisonism in the International,
The last sentence here is the most im- and a continuing hostility toward the
portant; in his effort "to codify" the Left everywhere in the United States.
The notion of scientific sociology
2
Kenneth Burke, "Twelve Propositions by
grounded in dialectical materialism
Kenneth Burke on the Relation Between Eco- seemed the only methodology around
nomics and Psychology," Science & Society, 2
(Spring 1938), 242. Subsequent references des- 3
ignated "TP." An abbreviated version of 4
Science & Society, 1 (Fall 1936), i.
"Twelve Propositions" appears in Burke's Phi- Margaret Schlauch's review of Kenneth
losophy of Literary Form, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: Burke's Attitudes Toward History, in Science ir
Univ. of California Press, 1973), pp. 305-13. Society, 2 (Winter 1937), 128-29.
407
QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF SPEECH FEEHAN

which the Marxist community could (meanings, attitudes, character) by which one
unite. Schlauch saw Burke's approach in handles the significant factors of his time.
(ATH, p. 34)
ATH as a direct threat to this most
basic methodology.
In reducing ATH to eight pages, and
Scientific sociology must, in Schlauch's in facing Schlauch's objections, Burke
view, employ terms exclusively from the became adamant: "11. Human relations
realms of economics, politics, and his- should be analyzed with respect to the
tory. Burke argued that terms from leads discovered by a study of drama"
aesthetics and religion could broaden ("TP," p. 246). Not just any poetic
the range of insights available to category—drama. No longer "might be
sociologists. For instance, the term profitably tested," but "should be
"prayer" could be secularized to mean analyzed"! Burke embraced the challenge
the political process of petitioning the of his own attitudes toward symbols:
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government for redress of grievances. Figurative vocabularies, employing


Schlauch, from her concern for "forward terms such as "secularized prayer" and
social movement," saw Burke's trans- "role playing," accurately reflect the
formations of terms as interesting but characteristic human capacity to con-
dangerous: struct the self and community through
One may choose to speak of legislation as symbols.
"secularized prayer," and then by a kind of Under pressure, Burke's claims became
shorthand as "prayer"; this yields an arresting
figurative emphasis on the common appetitive even more revolutionary. ATH argues
elements in praying and law-making; but the that symbolic frames, especially as ex-
important difference between the two for for- emplified in poetic categories, might
ward social movement must also be borne in shed light on ways to link pscyhology
mind when the transfer of current terminology
is made. The figurative vocabulary may con-
and economics. "Twelve Propositions"
stitute a hinderance to rapid and accurate insists that drama is the appropriate
thought.5 model for linking psychology and eco-
nomics. In fact, Burke now claimed that
The debate centered on this transforma- the greatest minds in psychology and
tion of terms from one realm to another. economics were dramatists:
In working "to codify" the arguments of Both Freud and Marx were "impresarios."
ATH, Burke claimed, with a new in- Marx's concept of the "classless" stage following
sistence, that the transformations in a maximum intensification of class conflict is
terminology were not figurative but precisely in line with the Aristotelian recipe
for the process of dramatic "catharsis." The
literal representations of human rela- shock value of Freudian analysis exemplified the
tions. same process in tiny "closet dramas" of private
In ATH, the aesthetic perspective life (the facing and burning-out of conflict).
was suggested as a helpful possibility for ("TP," p. 246)
the improvement of sociological analysis:
Both Permanence and Change and A TH
Our way of approaching the structures of
reveal a Burke in transition from the
symbolism might be profitably tested by the
examination of various literary categories, as aesthete of Counter-Statement to the
each of the great poetic forms stresses its own system builder of the Motivorium tril-
peculiar way of building the mental equipment ogy. "Twelve Propositions" registers
5
and preserves a moment of resolution,
Margaret Schlauch, "A Reply to Kenneth
Burke," Science & Society, 2 (Spring 1938), 251. perhaps an "epiphany." Burke dis-
408
QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF SPEECH DECEMBER 1979

covered that his new concentration on man relations and as a methodology to


sociology and psychology could best be be taken seriously in the study of human
comprehended through the earlier per- relations. To reveal both the form and
spective of critical appraisals of works content, and their interaction for Burke,
of art. New ideas were not called for my analysis moves systematically through
but a new respect for old ones. "Twelve Propositions" tracing the pro-
Burke's struggle to lead readers to gress of strategies and the emergence of
accept this new position made "Twelve what might be called a proto-dramatistic
Propositions" a rhetorical tour de force, perspective.
as close to a rigid mechanical applica- Propositions one through three work
tion of syllogistic progression as can be as a set to involve readers in Burke's
found in anything Burke has published. perspective on the link between eco-
Where Rueckert noted "the fragmented nomics and psychology. Proposition one
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stylistics of Attitudes toward History introduces the basic concern for symbols:
(parentheses within parentheses, con- "1. The basic concept for uniting eco-
tinuous digressions, and long, bewilder- nomics and psychology ('Marx and
ingly suggestive footnotes),"6 "Twelve Freud') is that of the 'symbols of author-
Propositions" presents simple, bald ity' " ("TP," p. 242). Proposition two
statements of basic concepts linked with presents the "two . . . dichotomous atti-
simple and short illustration/discussions. tudes" ("TP," p. 242) toward those
Though a surprising range of Burke's symbols: acceptance and rejection. Pro-
ideas are surveyed in the article, the position three then introduces the key
style is anything but fragmented. Burke Marxist term "alienation" as an equi-
had made up his mind and had only valent term for rejection. Finally, in the
to lead his reader to drama. discussion for proposition three, Burke
linked Marx,N Freud, and alienation:
ANALYSIS " 'Alienation' is thus also a concept
clearly having both economic and psy-
An analysis of "Twelve Propositions" chological relevance.... One may be ma-
can show not only what Burke wrote in terially or spiritually alienated, or both"
linking economics, psychology, and ("TP," p. 243). Where ATH begins
drama, but also the progression of ideas with attitudes of three American writers,
through which he sought to lead "Twelve Propositions" begins one step
readers to see that link. The clarity of back, framing attitudes in terms em-
style and vision which emerge in this ployed by the Marxist audience, sug-
short article resulted from the exigencies gesting that the discussion that follows is
of the situation of composition: Marxist grounded in a Marxist perspective.
thinkers rejected the perspective oiATH
Propositions four through six also
for specifically Marxist reasons, and
work as a set, introducing and linking
Burke's response was to move from these the ideas of identity and community,
charges back to the perspective of ATH. then illustrating the ways in which
In performing that movement, Burke identities change through historical
discovered for himself a new commit- changes in community. Proposition four
ment to drama as a literal model of hu- introduces and challenges the notion of
a "purely psychological concept . . . of
6
William H. Rueckert, Kenneth Burke and 'identity' " ("TP," p. 243). Proposition
the Drama of Human Relations (Minneapolis:
Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1963), p. 35. five takes up this challenge to the
409
QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF SPEECH FEEHAN

Freudian notion of identity, compli- in an attempt to mollify Marxist readers


cating it to a claim for mulitple identi- and, at the same time, illustrate the
ties constructed out of the multiplicity structures of formal relationships be-
of social situations: "5. In this complex tween life and art. To this point, Burke
world, one is never a member of merely had tried to show that art works reveal
one 'corporation.' The individual is the link between economics and psy-
composed of many 'corporate identities.' chology by showing the formal opera-
Sometimes they are concentric, some- tions of the key notions "change of
times in conflict" ("TP," p. 243). The identity" and "alienation." Proposition
self, in a Marxist metaphor, is a project eight meets Schlauch's charge of "mysti-
of interacting corporations. Proposition fication" by embracing the charge,
six declares that in "highly transitional arguing that, whereas "Identity itself is
a 'mystification'" ("TP," p. 244),
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eras" ("TP," p. 244), when social aliena-


tion is heightened, problems of identity Marxists can comprehend alienation
become critical. Pure psychology re- only when they go by way of this mysti-
quires the corrective of economics; fication. Proposition nine, meeting
identities are not formed in a vacuum. Schlauch's claim that ATH never deals
; Because one's sense of self is learned with objective social conditions, directs
from the society in which one lives and the reader's attention to the formative
grows, alterations in that society will relation between objective factors and
have direct impact on formation of and moral values. It was that relation which
alienation from the self. provided the crucial methodological
With this interactive conception of basis for Dramatism:
the self, community, and history, Burke In sum, economic conditions give form to the
turned the argument from economics values; and these values, having arisen, form
and psychology to art: "7. The processes "objective material" with which the artist works
of change of identity are most clearly in constructing symbols that appeal. ("TP,"
p. 245)
revealed by analyzing formal works of
art and applying the results of our
In the discussion that follows, Burke
analysis to the 'informal art of living
illustrated the structural principle on
in general" ("TP," p. 244). Through
which the formal relation is based.
what Burke called their "high degree of
articulateness," art works provide an The artist finds material in the world,
accurate picture of society: "Here all finds the "substructure" of the art work
the implicit social processes become ex- in economics; but the artifact directly
plicit" ("TP," p. 244). The formal conveys aesthetic values themselves, the
and symbiotic relations among history, "superstructure." Burke showed the
society, and the individual seem method of analysis implicit in the
clouded and vague in the continual aesthetic perspective with the example of
flow of everyday life; but works of art, Shakespeare:
because they embody articulate forms, For instance, new methods of production gave
simplify observations in economics and rise to the change from feudal to bourgeois
psychology by bringing patterns of rela- values. But Shakespeare's strategy as a dramatist
tionship to the surface. Form in art was formed by relation to this conflict between
clarifies forms of daily life. feudal and bourgeois values. This "super-
structural" material was the objective, social
Propositions eight and nine strategi- material he manipulated in eliciting his audi-
cally digress from the central argument ence's response. Economic factors gave rise to
410
QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF SPEECH DECEMBER 1979
the transition in values, but he dealt with the which to study identity and the pro-
transition in values. ("TP," pp. 244-45) cesses of change of identity. But this is
not all—at this point Burke declared a
Dramatism will be concerned with how specific preference among works of art:
people live, objectively, but it will Drama in particular among works of art
recognize that artists perform a realistic is a literal model of human relations
formal act in constructing their works. and should be the methodology of choice
Artists abstract out of the continuum of for economics and psychologists:
everyday life the key values in social
conflict and transform them for purposes 11. Human relations should be analyzed with
respect to the leads discovered by a study of
of audience response into esthetic, drama.
"superstructural" elements. Men enact r61es. They change roles. They
Proposition ten introduces a dra- participate. They develop modes of social ap-
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matistic perspective on rhetoric: " 'Style' peal. Even a "star" is but a function of the
total cast. Politics above all is drama. ("TP,"
is an aspect of identification" ("TP," p. 246)
p. 245). Costume in dress, like ornamen-
tation in poetry, allows those without The way into this dramatistic approach
privilege to identify with those in power, to human values is communication:
to " 'own' privilege vicariously" ("TP," "The value, the normative basis of
p. 245). Identification, the term which reference, proper to this approach is
became the key to A Rhetoric of Mo- 'communication* " ("TP," p. 246). Two
tives, enters the discussion as a tool for poles of communication will be studied,
linking symbolic acts with sociological the "hortatory" and the "diagnostic."
analysis: "Consideration of such 'sym- The key notion again is the formal rela-
bolic boasting' offers an excellent in- tions between levels of value:
stance in support of our contention that
the analysis of esthetic phenomena can Modes of cooperation (production and distribu-
be extended or projected into the tion) give form to modes of communication. The
modes of communication thus refer back to the
analysis of social and political phe- modes of cooperation. ("TP," p. 247)
nomena in general" ("TP," p. 245). Al-
though identity is a "mystification," and The idea that communication "refer[s]
thus almost beyond the reach of back to" economics is the key to taking
sociological analysis, the process by drama seriously as a model of human
which one orients oneself toward the relations: "12. The difference between
community, "identification," can be the symbolic drama and the drama of
studied with ease and accuracy as the living is a difference between imaginary
function of "superstructures," taking obstacles and real obstacles. But: the
style as strategic responses to situations imaginary obstacles of symbolic drama
(the approach of The Philosophy of must, to have the relevance necessary for
Literary Form).
the producing of effects upon audiences,
The essential bases of Dramatism are reflect the real obstacles of living drama"
now available to the reader: Art is the ("TP," pp. 246-47). Drama is powerful
starting point: its formalizing of social insofar as it reaches into the lives of the
values presents the "superstructure" of audience. Critical studies of drama will
actual human relations. Economics and reach through the dramatist's "super-
psychology will be improved by employ- structure" of aesthetic values to the
ing works of art as frames through "substructure" of economic values. Dra-
411
QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF SPEECH FEEHAN

matism will analyze modes of competi- ly dialectical theory of change, presum-


tion as the unstructured foundation of ably desired by Marxists, requires a
modes of communication. complementary theory of permanence:
"Twelve Propositions" continues with "For I do not see how writers can lay
several helpful discussions, especially claim to a belief in Hegel-Marx co-
about the function of consciousness and ordinates while feeling gratified that
the role of attitudes in philosophy. they have 'made themselves at home' in
Schlauch demanded of Burke an ad- the pure process-thinking of prag-
mission that oppression of workers oc- matism" ("TP," p. 249). Philosophy
curred in the real world and damaged should move from the outmoded
real people. Burke replied: "I fully agree medieval system of stability through the
with her that 'the proletariat was and process-thinking of Dewey's instru-
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was being exploited.' I was simply dis- mentalism to a new synthesis: "If an
cussing how such a fact takes shape when emphasis upon nouns (categories) was
filtered through a complex human followed by an antithetical emphasis
consciousness" ("TP," p. 248). Here is upon verbs (processes), why should not
the meaning of "reflect" in proposition 'dialectic' reasoning lead us to look for
twelve (obstacles in drama reflect ob- a synthesis of the two, something like
stacles in life), the connection between categories of process?" ("TP," p. 249).
consciousness and communication, be- The project for Attitudes Toward His-
tween communication and community: tory was to take that step in synthesis:
Drama is a shaping of experience, a
"I submit that, if such expectations are
shaping that takes place in the mind of
permissible, some such basic notion as
some agent. To understand any experi-
ence is to organize that experience, to 'attitudes,' filled out with such verbal
give form to consciousness. Drama ex- nouns as 'acceptance' and 'rejection,' will
hibits the characteristic human process be the kind of inquiry implicit in an
of making sense of life, so that drama attempt to consider 'process-categories.'
realistically represents the world of hu- Attitudes are 'strategies.' As such, they
man action. Burke did not deny that maintain something permanent through
human suffering occurs, but he did in- flux, while at the same time they must
sist that human understanding of human adapt themselves to the specific changes
suffering takes shape as symbolic action. of material provided by flux" ("TP," p.
In a significant final section of the 249). Dramatism dialectically advances
article, Burke met Schlauch's charge of Marxism and Freudianism, linking in-
hostility to change by embracing it but sights from economics and psychology to
denying its force. In doing that, Burke transcend both through a new under-
presented a fascinating discussion of the standing of roles and strategies, of
key term, "attitudes." Schlauch had per- process-categories.
ceived Burke as advocating a look back- Of course the development of Drama-
ward to a medieval philosophy of
tism had a long way to go in 1937, but
stability, embodied in nouns, while
Marxists "have presumably made them- the central moment had been met: The
selves at home in a world of verbs and metaphorical idea of a "drama of living"
change."7 Burke replied that a coherent- had been taken on as a literal model
and seriously defended as a methodology
7
Schlauch's review, p. 132. for the study of human relations.