U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Blogging Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes Toward History: An Introductory Post

Last month, just before the official start of the Society for Intellectual History’s annual conerence in Indianapolis, Andrew Hartman hosted the first S-USIH reading group.[1] A number of us gathered to discuss Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes Toward History (1937). The event went so well – both because of the richness of the text and the quality of the conversation – that I thought it would be wonderful for some of us who took part to blog a little about Burke and Attitudes. Since others thought this would be a good idea, we decided to make this week on the USIH Blog at least partially devoted to Burke.

In kicking off our Burke week, I initially thought of writing about one of the countless brilliant, short passages in Attitudes. Though it is a long book with a complicated and involved overarching argument, it is also wonderfully digressive. Many of its riches come in passing. Indeed, Attitudes is, among many other things, a monument to the potential richness of the footnote as a literary form.

But then I thought that, since this is the first post on the book, it might be worth devoting this post simply to describing the overall plan of Attitudes Toward History.

This exercise will, of course, be of most interest to those of our readers who haven’t read Attitudes Toward History. But it may also spark conversation among those of us who have read the book. Attitudes is odd and complicated enough in its design that I know my description will be only partial. Other readers may approached this elephant from another direction and may describe it rather differently. I’m going to confine my comments to the almost three hundred pages that constitute its core text. In Attitudes‘ third, and final, edition, an additional hundred pages, consisting of two afterwords sandwiching an appendix, conclude the volume. These are also of great interest, but one can only do so much in a blog post.

Burke begins Attitudes Toward History with a statement that serves to undermine what little most readers will have gathered from the book’s title itself:

Though the tendency is to pronounce the title of this book with the accent on history, so far as meaning goes, the accent should be on attitudes. And by “history” is meant primarily man’s life in political communities.

The waters have been muddied from the start, but Burke’s explanation of the book’s purpose – which goes on to suggest that the book might also have been titled “Attitudes Toward the Incessant Intermingling of Conservatism and Progress,” “Statements of Policy on Problems of Organizational Behavior,” or “Manual of Terms for a Public Relations Counsel with Heart” – does point to the fact that in this book, Kenneth Burke, already a celebrated, largely self-taught literary critic, began to turn his attention to social theory.

Attitudes has a tripartite structure. Part I, entitled “Acceptance and Rejection,” describes what Burke calls the “most basic” attitudes: yes, no, and maybe. After beginning with a chapter on acceptance and rejection in William James, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Burke turns to a chapter entitled “Poetic Categories,” which attempts to analyze tragedy, comedy, the elegy, satire, and a variety of other literary forms in terms of their relationship to acceptance and rejection. The epic, the tragic, and the comic are all acceptance frames, though each finds its home in different social conditions. The epic, for example, arises from “primitive, non-commercial conditions” and teaches people to “be at home in” these conditions by focusing on heroic figures, who can simultaneously create in their audiences humility (in comparison with the hero) and self-glorification (through identification with the hero). Having tied a variety of literary forms of acceptance and rejection to a variety of past social conditions, Burke then devotes a chapter entitled “The Destiny of Acceptance Frames” to mapping out a kind of literary “program of action” that describes the various ways that people might “cash in on” the present historical situation of capitalism.

After spending two pages summarizing the more than one-hundred pages that had constituted Part I, Burke turns to Part II, “The Curve of History,” which is a long, Marx-inflected metanarrative of the history of the West, from “Christian Evangelism” through “Mediaeval Synthesis” and “Protestant Transition” to “Naïve Capitalism” and “Emergent Collectivism.” Burke’s version of this history is fascinating and complicated. I hope others will discuss it in more detail.

Finally, Part III of Attitudes Toward History is entitled “Analysis of Symbolic Structure.” This consists of two chapters, “General Nature of Ritual,” which deals largely with symbolism, and “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms,” which consists of long definitions of – or, depending on how you look at it, short essays on – some of the key terms that Burke had been using throughout the book.

As might be clear from this very brief description of the book’s contents, Attitudes Toward History has a very deliberate structure that does not, at least at first glance, entirely make sense. Many members of our reading group were, for example, struck by Burke’s decision to put his “Dictionary” last. While there’s a certain odd pleasure in the deferred gratification of Burke’s finally revealing on p. 319 precisely what he has meant by “salvation device,” a term he has used throughout the book, wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to have taken the time to tell us this somewhat earlier in the proceedings?

Yet, somehow, in the six-page long Conclusion that follows Part III and ends the main body of Attitudes, Burke manages to pull all this material together in a satisfying way that, at least for me, seemed to justify the book’s odd structure. But I could not begin to reconstruct how he manages to do this – at least not in a blog post.

Before reading Attitudes for our group, my first-hand knowledge of Burke was confined entirely to his famous 1935 speech before the American Writers’ Conference entitled “Revolutionary Symbolism in America,” in which he argued that “the people” could be a more powerful revolutionary symbol in this country than “the proletariat.” But while “Revolutionary Symbolism” is short, forceful, and clear in its argumentation, Attitudes Toward History is dense, long, and meandering. Such a description might read like a criticism of Attitudes. However, I mean it entirely as praise. One’s way through the forest of Attitudes is often hard to comprehend, but the trees are almost always fascinating. So that even if one is feeling a little lost at times, the path underfoot not at all clear, there is always something interesting to explore at hand. And Burke somehow manages to guide you through the woods of his argument if you give him the time to do so. I look forward, this week, to hearing from my fellow bloggers what they found along the way.

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  1. Nice summary Ben and thanks for starting this discussion off. (And apologies to Bill Fine, he’ll know what I mean).
    I like that you start with the title of the book because it immediately brings you into Burke’s idiosyncratic thinking and sense of humor, “Manual of Terms for a Public Relations Counsel with Heart”, indeed! But his humor is revealing and as someone noted at the conference, this is a how-to book on living or as Burke would say “equipment for living”. I think if one looks at the book as a manual or instruction guide the layout might make more sense. REMEMBER: READ THE WHOLE MANUAL BEFORE USING THIS PRODUCT. All the parts and pieces tend to overlap and inter-join: “discounting” connects to “identification” which connects to “comic corrective”
    etc. “By proper discounting everything becomes usable”. (244)

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