Archive: October 29th, 2008

Kenneth Burke: A Grammar of Motives

[Readings] (10.29.08, 4:04 pm)

Kenneth Burke was an American philosopher and literary critic writing in the mid 20th century. His principles have had influence on a great number of others: Edward Said, Clifford Geertz, Frederic Jameson, and Erving Goffman. The introduction to this book poses his investigation as similar to some standard sociological questions, but his inquiry is much more philosophical in nature.

Burke’s opening also gives a straightforward overview of the principles of dramatism: The explicit topic is understanding everyday action and motive. Burke’s solution is to pose a dramatic approach. This uses five key elements, which he calls the pentad: Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, and Purpose. Act represents the nature of the deed or action took place. Scene is the situation and background wherein the act takes place. The agent is the performer who enacted the act. Agency is the means and manner by which the agent could perform the act. Purpose is the most ambiguous term, reflecting why the agent performed the act in the first place.

Burke explains the challenge in using a particular philosophical idiom. Originally, the grammar of motives was intended to be a theory of comedy, and more precisely a rhetoric, but eventually became clear as a grammar. The idea behind creating the grammar is not to shoehorn all experience into the rigid structure of the grammar, but rather, expose and understand ambiguity.

A perfectionist might seek to evolve terms free of ambiguity and inconsistency (as with the terministic ideals of symbolic logic and logical positivism). But we have a different purpose in view, one that probably retains traces of its “comic” origin. We take it for granted that, insofar as men cannot themselves create the universe, there must remain something essentially enigmatic about the problem of motives, and that this underlying enigma will manifest istself in inevitable ambiguities and inconsistenceis among the terms for motives. Accordingly, what we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise. (p. xvii)

There may be overlap between the categories. For example: war may be seen as agency, act, purpose, scene, or agent, if personified. One feature of this categorization is that issues of the border between agent and instrument are disposed of. Relationships between an actor and an instrument, such as “the chisel is an instrument,” versus “the hand is an instrument,” cause problems in comparison to cognitive extension. Burke’s fomulation here encompasses these under the broad stroke of “agents,” whereas the term agency has a significantly more separate role. This approach reflects the idea of symbolic action as posed by Mead.

The Container and Thing Contained

Grammar implies a structure, and the first element of structure is containment. The scene contains the act, and it contains the agents. The idea here is that the scene encompasses and reflects the act dramatically. This is best evident in drama, but can be found in fiction as well as in real life. We reconstruct and recast scenes to reflect the nature of our actions within them. One of Burke’s goals in this section is to examine the ratios between scene, act, and agent. These ratios are the degrees of emphasis or dependency belonging to the elements in given actions. Burke’s postulate seems to be that acts may be analyzed dramatistically in terms of the ratios involved.

Any verb can be an act if it is willed. Verb and intention defines an act. This has significant ramifications for how we might read acts and intentionality with respect to agents. “As for ‘act,’ any verb, no matter how specific or how general, that has connotations of consciousness or purpose falls under this category.” (p. 14)

The ratios are not means of measurement, but rather a tool of analysis. Burke gives an example of examining nations and “democracy.” Employing different ratios yields different perspectives on the relations between the two. A scene-act ratio would cast nations as scenes or situations and these situations would enable acts that are democratic or otherwise. With an act-agent ratio, the people of nations would perform “democratic acts.” This example is a little convoluted, but presents an inherent ambiguity and ambivalence of the ratios as investigative tools.

Antinomies of Definition

The matter of definition exposes a paradox at the heart of trying to understand something. Definition requires context, but requires a differentiation from that context. “To tell what a thing is, you place it in terms of something else. This idea of locating or placing, is implicit in our very word for definition itself: to define or determine a thing, is to mark its boundaries, hence to use terms that posess, implicitly at least, contextual reference.” (p. 24) Here, Burke is borrowing significantly from Spinoza, who was critical that things could be observed alone in themselves. This idea resurfaces again in Stafford’s theory of likeness.

One central element of Burke’s analysis is the notion of dialectics. There is a necessity of opposition in dialectics. Rivals are at opposite banks of the same stream. This sense of opposition is one in which adversaries share the same scene or model. In these situations, the opposing parties on each side of the dielectic may vehemently disagree regarding their issue at stake, but they do necessarily agree that there is a world consistent save for this issue. An opposing view to the dialectic perspective is one in which differences arise from the use of different models. In these situations, no common ground may even be found for taking up opposition for argument.

Scope and Reduction

There is an interesting opening here, which applies very neatly to the construction of models. Forming a cohesive vocabulary is a similar (if not the same) process as constructing a model. Burke’s goal with dramatism is to form a procedure for developing a terminology (or calculus) of any given domain. The key here is the idea of a representative anecdote. In a model based perspective, a representative anecdote might be compared to some sort of representative or essential element.

Men seek for vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. Any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality. Insofar as the vocabulary meets the needs of reflection, we can say that it has the necessary scope. In its selectivity, it is a reduction. Its scope and reduction become a deflection when the given terminology, or calculus, is not suited to the subject matter which it is designed to calculate. (p. 59)

There is a focus on the nature and effects of reduction. Divisions, distinctions, measurements, quantifications, comparisons, and metaphors, are all reductions.

Understanding a scene in terms of reductions: The scene must reflect only the reduced domain when a reduction is at hand. Any scene that reflects elements that do not belong to the reduction will fail to make sense when the reduction is in place. The idea that seems to be here is the importance of consistency. The grammar of drama is invariant under reductions (even though it is a reduction itself), and accounts for the transformed nature of content. A motive is a reduction, and can be understood as an analytic tool that is consistent as long as the dramatistic elements are consistent under that motive. For instance: if the motive is power, then acts must be power related acts, scenes must be scenes where power is at play, agents must be making use of power, agency is how power is played, and purpose is necessarily the pursuit of power.

A reduction, model, or term, is a way for interpreting the world, but is also a way to generating new worlds, which are dependent on these interpretations. Burke explains:

In sum: In any term we can posit a world, in the sense that we can treat the world in terms of it, seeing as all emanations, near or far, of its light. Such reduction to a simplicity being technically reduction to a summarizing title or “God term,” when we confront a simplicty we must forthwith as ourselves what complexities are subsumed beneath it. For a simplicity of motive being a perfection or purity of motive, the paradox of the absolute would admonish us that it cannot prevail in the “imperfect world” of everyday experience. It exist not actually, but only “in principle,” “substantially.” (p. 105)

Four Master Tropes

Burke explains the four master tropes: metaphor, metonymy, synechdoche, irony. He reformulates these in terms of other formats: Metaphor is perspective, metonymy is reduction, synechdoche is representation, and irony is dialectic. (p. 503)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBurke, Kenneth
TitleA Grammar of Motives
Tagsspecials, media theory, philosophy, psychology, performance
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon