Published on September 23rd, 2012 | by Thompson4
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.”
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.