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Published on September 23rd, 2012 | by Thompson


Kenneth Burke’s Man a Thing of Perfection

I admire Kenneth Burke’s ability to make science sound so frivolous.  Chapter Three of his Language as Symbolic Action about terministic screens lays out the problem science, and every discipline or observation, has: “A ‘scientistic’ approach begins with questions of naming, or definition…Definition itself is a symbolic act” (44).  I’ve always struggled in my attempt to effectively explain this to my peers in the sciences, but Burke has a way of making everything obscure and then slowly revealing it, like pulling back the layers of an onion.

While in pursuit of my undergraduate degrees, I took an online summer course that made me interested in the issue of applying definitions.  “What makes a dog a dog?” one of our readings posed.  Well, a dog is a dog because we’ve attached a combination of letters representing a word (or symbol, as Burke would explain it) that our society associates with hairy quadrupeds of the canine order.

The power of words just doesn’t dawn on my “scientistic” peers, and when I try to explain that power, I’m shoveled arguments like, “language is a given” or “all definitions in scientific papers are provided to avoid confusion.”  Now I can simply echo Burke and say, “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality,” and “language is a species of action, symbolic action – and its nature is such that it can be used as a tool,” (15) but the tool can’t do the work for us.

How can the words we use to define the world be taken as a given, and how do provided definitions help avoid confusion?  If anything, as Burke eventually makes clear, defining objects is really hard, if not impossible, because the audience ultimately accepts or rejects your definition.  I guess the definition of definition could effectively be “the most generally accepted explanation of an observation.”

“Man is

the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal,

inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)

separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making

goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)

and rotten with perfection.” (16)

The definition of man Burke eventually settles on may be eloquent and even supported by historical evidence, but can it ever become generally accepted?  Will we ever agree upon a definition of our being?  I think not, and I think it’s because of what Burke’s definition of man requires of man: a pursuit of perfection.  The last clause of Burke’s definition makes it rather difficult to apply a definition to much of anything because we are constantly seeking to perfect that definition.

“Freud sees in all such instances the workings of what he calls the neurotic attempt to so shape one’s later life that some earlier unresolved problem is lived over and over again.  Freud also calls it a ‘destiny compulsion,’ to bring out the thought that the sufferer unconsciously strives to form his destiny in accordance with this earlier pattern…Is not the sufferer exerting almost superhuman efforts in the attempt to give his life a certain form, so shaping his relations to people in later years that they will conform perfectly to an emotional or psychological pattern already established in some earlier formative situation?” (18).

This destiny compulsion, a constant pursuit of “the man we ought to be,” makes me feel that all of humanity is simply recovering from an illness or addiction all the time (Burke’s use of the term sufferer” certainly doesn’t help).  According to Freud, we are constantly trying to improve on our past experiences, always attempting to step out of the dark shadow of our past and shed our life narratives in a more honorable light so that we may be remembered fondly by the people we leave behind.  In Burke’s essay “From a Rhetoric of Motives,” he continues to explain that we take the values of society seriously and they “make us alert to the ingredient of rhetoric in all socialization, considered as a moralizing process.  The individual person, striving to form himself in accordance with the communicative norms that match the cooperative ways of his society, is by the same token concerned with the rhetoric of identification.  To act upon himself persuasively, he must variously resort to images and ideas that are formative.”   This is never more apparent than in theology, as Burke explains:

“To round out the subject of ‘perfection,’ in both honorific and ironic senses, we might end by observing that, without regard for the ontological truth, or falsity of the case, there are sheerly technical reasons, intrinsic to the nature of language, for belief in God and the Devil.  Insofar as language is intrinsically hortatory (a medium by which men can obtain the cooperation of one another), God perfectly embodies the petition.  Similarly, insofar as vituperation is a ‘natural’ resource of speech, the Devil provides a perfect butt for invective.  Heaven and Hell together provide the ultimate, or perfect, grounding for sanctions” (20).

I read this as we all have this little angel and little demon on each of our shoulders that affect our rhetoric, whether it be honest, cooperative argument or abusive, violent language, and we strive to find the “perfect” combination of the two for our audience, which includes ourselves, “For you become your own audience” (1030).  But the things that keep us from achieving that perfection is our ever-evolving audience and our identification with ideologies, because when your audience is all of humanity, it’s hard to find something we can all agree on.

Burke makes it clear that defining the world around us is always necessary but always evolving, as is rhetoric, as time ticks on, “For rhetoric as such is not rooted in any past condition of human society.  It is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born and anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation” (1032).  I guess that’s why it was important for us to “attempt” to vaguely define rhetoric in class as the summation or negotiation of narrative interchanges in a moment, though I think Burke may have wrapped his definition with a bit more eloquence.

I think the most important thing we can pull from Burke is that “the world is doubtless infinitely full of entities, relationships and developments, actual or potential, for which we do not have names, and never shall,” (60) so we shouldn’t fret over who’s right or wrong with regards to definitions, but we should be aware that our act of defining is symbolic, making it difficult for rhetoric not to sneak into our definitions, and if we can communicate through our identities and overcome our ideologies we can help reach a consensus on definitions that hurt no one and help everyone.  That would be perfect, and judging by Burke’s definition of man, we’ll always pursue that perfection.

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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

4 Responses to Kenneth Burke’s Man a Thing of Perfection

  1. ARRIVES says:

    I really liked your use of the quote about language and reality. I remember reading that and finding it interesting, but I didn’t stop to think about it. When I read it today, though, all I could think of was Pirsig and his discussion of reality and Quality. Let me see if I can work this out. Burke seems to be saying that even if we define something, it is only a reflection of reality and not only that but one selection, or one part, of reality. Doesn’t this sound like Pirsig’s refusal to define Quality? Pirsig writes, “Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality…Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this preintellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects” (247). Pirsig and Burke seem to be making the same argument that to define something is useless and, at least for Pirsig, harmful. Burke’s idea of one part of reality could be compared to Pirsig’s lack of reality. Both of them are arguing that definitions, by nature, are subjective. They can change.

    You did a really nice job of synthesizing this idea of perfection and how it relates to the symbolic nature of language and the role of definition. You make a good point that it’s hard to find something to agree on when humanity is the audience. I think that’s really true of any audience, large or small, though. Even when speaking to a group of like-minded people, it is possible to have a disagreement about the definition or interpretation of something. I laughed when I read that we would never fully accept Burke’s definition of man because it requires a pursuit of perfection. All I could think of was Benjamin Franklin and his Autobiography. Obviously there are many components to Franklin’s Autobiography but there is this sense that he encourages striving for moral perfection and I think Franklin suggests this perfection is unattainable, but the pursuit is good enough. He might agree with Burke.

  2. Siyeh says:

    Sounds to me like some scientists weren’t reading the intro chapters of their books. I think Burke might have the order of things wrong, but there is the greatest difficulty in defining. We start with a convenient definition and then try to find something in the real world that matches.

    Silverberg in the Structure of Economics has a very interesting discussion of similar ideas. To simplify, we (scientists) create models and then try to find real world proxies for the (often mathematically defined) concepts in the models. This is sometimes easier said than done. Ie there is a chunk of metal In Sevres France that we all agree is the kilogram, but it’s changing mass! And what about a price? It’s not such a difficult thing to define, but to find it in the real world….

    I can show you the intro if you’re interested. Perhaps tuesday around eight, near campus? I suppose we could agree to call it Spectators?

    • Thompson says:

      I’d like to see that intro. Spec’s at 8 on Tuesday. Sounds like it could be a regular thing.

      I think Burke is simply trying to convey how science, being dependent on definitions, a symbolic action, must then be subject to rhetoric, and therefore, everything is subject to rhetoric. It is inescapable, inevitable. Rhetoric is everywhere…even the sciences, but Burke certainly isn’t attempting to undermine science. He says so repeatedly. He’s just trying to make people aware that everything is rhetorical.

      Oh, and I will take a look at those essays you sent me as soon as I find some time. I’ve got a bit of reading to do tomorrow, but I’ll print a few off and skim them for our meeting Tuesday.

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