Reflections on Reading Burke

The Kenneth Burke reading did not attracts me until I read the lines that highlight his resolution to work hard for his ideal—mountains of words, the place where Burke wanted to work like Sisyphus(188). I love Camus’ absurd philosophy and how it was applied by writers such as Doris Lessing, and here by Burke in the postmodern sense.

Reading Burke in Chinese translation made me think of Ezra Pound because both lived in an era where symbolism permeated. May be the hallow men in that era who had lived through WWI and WWII really needed something concrete to save their disillusions brought by various trauma. Maybe they were trying hard to enshrine in Sisyphus a meaning in their seemingly meaningless or absurd life. Or, simply maybe they were like all the other artists, trying to pick the “fleur du mal” in order to get inspiration from their ecstasy.

This time, reading Burke in English, his ideas on rhetoric, human beings, and the society reminds me of Heidegger’s “Being and Time,” of the structuralist Althusser and the ideological literary criticism, of Sigmend Freud, of Gadmer’s subjectivity and intersubjectivity, of Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge, of Derrida’s deconstructionism, and of Husserl’s phenomenology. However, when some of you had the discussion in class, and Robert mentioned Hegel, I immediately thought that it could go further back. For Adammontology and Evepistemology have long, long stories to tell.

Reading Burke makes me feel both comfortable and uncomfortable. On the one hand, his rhetoric touches upon the most fundamental philosophical, literary, political, and social concern, which makes it easy for me to relax and relate freely to any book or any paper that I have read. On the other, his individual talent, which I know I definitely do not have an equal level with, moves freely and deeply toward any subject under his concern.

I cannot find his reference to any of the philosophers that I think he might have drawn ideas from, and this annoys me. I remember that during my lit study days, one of the readings is about how literary theory has remained the same in essence whereas terminology changes all the time. That was exactly how it was like in the field of rhetoric and composition, I think. Some of us have felt this gentle breeze of sameness in Dr. Harker’s composition theory course. Whoever in our classroom can think of really smart theories, you are going to be as famous as Burke in the future.

Fortunately, we have some pig potatoes who can always write new theories and enlighten our field, even the world a little bit so that common people know where they should go and how things are happening. Burke’s ideas are easier than Ulysses, but ready enough for our generation to consume for a while. At least I know there is a strong wind of Burke study and reference there in China. One of my friend is working on his dissertation and I know he will use Burke as his fundamental theory base.

What I love Burke most is the way he transcends the old philosophical tradition into his time, and even ours. I think he really succeeded in becoming a genius because he saw the truth and he gave us a theoretical legacy to interpret and make full use of. I suddenly remembered the American idiom engraved on The Korean War Veteran’s Memorial: “Freedom is not free.” This idiom emphasizes military significance, but I really want to relate it to Burke’s idea of freedom. I totally agree with his idea that human beings never can be completely free because they never know the full consequences of their acts(198). It is not that I do not think human beings can be temporary free, but that I agree with Rousseau’s idea of social contract. I think that human beings are social existence who are “born free, and is everywhere in chains.” This is also how Burke’s idea of hierarchy(205-206), perfection(206-207), mystery(207-209), and redemption(209-212) works. However, here I agree with Robert that Burke is obviously drawing heavily from classical philosophy. I really think the idea of seeking perfection is similar to Nietzsche’s idea of human beings making efforts to become supermen. I even doubt whether or not he drew from Nietzsche’s ideas on drama.

I think Burke’s views on identification and self as audience is marvelous although I frequently have trouble with identification and self as audience in real life. Identity is just too important for each one of us to be discussed. If you have your superman dream, you’ll know how it feels like even in your most secret thoughts. Like many fictional and real characters, I have to persuade my mother frequently and if I fail, I turned to persuade myself. That is how monologue and soliloquy works, I guess.

Burke is really heavy stuff for me, and I have to read him again and again. Hopefully, I’ll have a better understanding. And, I’ll write something on our first reading in my next response.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. mauricejackson612
    Jan 24, 2013 @ 04:25:25

    “Born free and everywhere in chains…” says it all…


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