U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Kenneth Burke and Self-Help

Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. It’s true of how-to books, for example. And it’s true of personal improvement books too. Some might even say it’s true of religion books… — Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)

On the first page of Attitudes toward History, Burke says, “getting along with people is one devil of a difficult task, but… in the last analysis, we should all want to get along with people (and do want to).” Just before that, he assures us that “[t]hough 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.” He also, as Paul Kern pointed out in a comment on Ben’s post, playfully considered re-titling the book “Manual of Terms for a Public Relations Counsel with a Heart.”

To cut to the chase, I want to argue that Attitudes toward History is a self-help book at least in the way that William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience is a self-help book if not also in the way that, say, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is a self-help book. Attitudes toward History is, I would argue, closer to Carnegie than to James (even though James is actually in the book, while Burke elsewhere lampooned Carnegie’s book as “How to Buy Friends and Bamboozle Oneself and Other People”[1]) because of ATH’s basically gregarious, extroverted orientation. This book is about “getting along with people,” which for Burke is really no different from “getting along with history.”

Let me give an example. Burke at one point earnestly admonishes his readers not to “waste the world’s rich store of error.” The fuller quote is worth reproducing:

The materials for such a [comic] frame by no means require a new start. They are all about us. (We should question the proposal drastically, were it otherwise, for a man [sic] is necessarily talking error unless his words can claim membership in a collective body of thought.) The comic frame is present in the best of psychoanalytic criticism. It is highly present in anthropological catalogues like that of Frazer’s Golden Bough which, by showing us the rites of magical purification in primitive peoples, gives us the necessary cues for the detection of similar processes in even the most practical and non-priestly of contemporary acts. It is to be found, amply, in the great formulators of “economic psychoanalysis,” writers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Voltaire, Bentham, Marx, Veblen. Yet, while never permitting itself to overlook the admonitions of even the most caustic social criticism, it does not waste the world’s rich store of error, as those parochial-minded persons waste it who dismiss all thought before a certain date as “ignorance” and “superstition.” Instead, it cherishes the lore of so-called “error” as a genuine aspect of the truth, with emphases valuable for the correcting of present emphases (172).

In other words, Burke is not in any sense simply rephrasing the (mis)quotation “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” which is individualistic in scope and is generally applied to rulers, but is rather saying something closer to the other Burke’s bon mot “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

There is, for both Burkes, a deeper sense of the past as a collective legacy rather than an individual lesson, though where Kenneth diverges is in his tacit refusal to restrict this legacy to the process of lineal descent. All humans are Kenneth’s “ancestors” (humani nihil a me alienum puto, one might justifiably say), and it is the world’s rich store of error which is not to be wasted and not the record of one’s genetic or national forebears. The world’s rich store of error, which we might as well call history, is useful because it de-parochializes, it absolutely denies the logic of the other Burke’s famous line, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” Kenneth instead begins with the world, with humankind; his logic is that history helps us get along with anyone because it shows that we are, au fond, anyone. “Everyone makes mistakes” is elevated from a motivational bromide to a historically-rooted cosmopolitan principle.

Burke (the Kenneth one) would even appreciate this very move, this retrieval of the anodyne. Indeed one of the more compelling concepts I took from ATH is the concept of “folk criticism,” which is introduced on the page immediately after the long quote I just excerpted. Burke defines “folk criticism” there as “a collective philosophy of motivation, arising to name the relationships, or social situations, which people have found so pivotal and so constantly recurring as to need names for them,” and later, on 296, he glosses it as “those remarkably ‘efficient’ shortcuts, equal in their ‘abstract shorthand’ to any scientific term imaginable, which our people have developed or borrowed, and passed around, to name the situation, processes, and strategies that strike them as typical and recurrent. Such terms stem particularly from the vocabularies of politics, business, sports, and crime.” (All of which, being particularly masculinized discourses, call into question the extent to which they are really “our people’s” vocabularies.)

We see in both definitions of folk criticism an emphasis on the “people,” which was the term at the center of his 1935 American Writers’ Conference speech, in which he proposed “people” might replace “worker” as the central symbol in the vocabulary of the Left. (Legendarily, this proposal led to something of an apoplectic fit among the attendees, a legend which Michael Denning has complicated thoroughly in The Cultural Front.) Burke’s “people” is slippery, partly because of the complex gendering of the term (which I’ve been dropping hints toward) in an era in which it still seemed a natural synonym of “mankind” and “man.” But it is also slippery because of its indeterminate number—as a collective noun, is its valence singular or plural? When Burke talks about “getting along with people,” does he mean “getting along with other individuals,” or “getting along with humankind?” Both, probably: “people,” like light, has a dual nature, and that is its strength.[2]

The epigraph from Hamid tackles this question from the other direction: the idea of self-help is basically incoherent because the operation of the genre requires that the “self” in question be both plural and singular—an oscillating fusion of the author and the reader, with the reader both able to inhabit the author’s experiences and thoughts while also separating herself in order to make them her own.

Burke—like Carnegie, although that is a topic for another post—understands this oscillation—between the singular and the plural, between getting along with other individuals and getting along with humankind—as intrinsic to the human condition and intrinsic to history: life is, for Burke, “self-help.”

[1] In the brief and justly famous essay “Literature as Equipment for Living” (pdf), another text which surely could be adduced as part of a Burkean self-help project.

[2] Cf. Sartre on the “fused group.”

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Andy – Very nice essay, and I agree that Burke is writing a sort of manual, or in other terms attempting to develop a “methodology,” a framework of second-level interpretations of interpretations, by which we understand and analyze varied forms of life and expression and gain a degree of protection from absolutism. Our views of Burke appear similar, though while you emphasized “people” and the “collective legacy” of history, I chose the slightly different but not antagonistic language of collectivity, the social, communion.

    As you pointed out, the ability of the person to be “a student of himself,” observing his own actions and thoughts, is congruent with “the comic frame,” a “method of study” which includes recognition of our shared nature as neither angels nor apes, but simply “man in society.” [170-171] [sics omitted] The comic frame helps forestall the “mystification” [169n] involved in taking the part for the whole [or the individual as the paradigm and end], and seems to arise from most inclusively social awareness, in which each perspective complements and corrects the others.

    “Folk criticism” is one of several such “tests of convertibility,” at one point characterized as “the ways whereby other men’s terms can be shown to have co-operated in the formulation of his own,” along with “further co-operative guidance from the kind of resistance or acceptance that his terms encounter.” [293] Another test is whether one’s terms “apply” in different action-contexts, the “intimate,” the public and social-historical, and the aesthetic. Then there’s “tests of ‘ecological balance,’ as we extend the orthodox range of a term by the perspective of a totality.” [173; see also 167]

    Finally, even if writing a self-help book isn’t aimed at helping oneself – and perhaps they all are – it entails that the writer be both subject and object, since how could one help readers unless one presumed to have that [same] feature, including the ability objectify it to some degree, experientially and in language? It seems quite parallel to the reader’s assumption, in Hamid’s sense of the oddness of someone not yourself helping you. It’s odd on both sides, but quite familiar, and in that sense not so odd. Isn’t the “oscillating fusion of the author and the reader,” as you so nicely put it, at once made possible and expressed by the shared vocabulary and comic fictions of “self-language?”

  2. Bill,
    Thank you so much for this comment (and apologies for the delayed response). I think the possibility of being a “student of oneself” that you’ve zeroed in on, is critical here, and I completely agree that it serves as a nice bridge for Burke between, one might say, other-direction and inner-direction. And I definitely agree that for Burke this self-study is primarily linguistic–it is (perhaps) the stealing back and forth of symbols played out inside oneself? I’ll have to ponder this more, but thank you for giving me so much to think about!

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