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Burke_Definition-1 - LANGUAGE AS SYMBOLIC ACTION Essays on...

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Unformatted text preview: . LANGUAGE AS - SYMBOLIC ACTION Essays on sze, Literature, and Method by KENNETH BURKE x LIE; LONDON UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS/BERKELEY. L05 ANPF UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS BERKELEY AND 1.05 ANGELES. CALIFORNIA UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, LTD. LONDON, ENGLAND © 1966 by The Regents of the University of California ISBN: (3-520-00192-3 Library or Congicss Catalog Card Number: 66-27655 Dcsigned by Hans Wehrll Printed in the United States of America Chapter One Definition of Man I First. a few words on definition in general. Let‘s admit it: I See in a definition the critic‘s equivalent of a lyric, or of an aria in opera. Also, we might note that, when used in an essay. as with Aristotle‘s defini- tion of tragedy'in his Poetics, a definition so sums things up that all the properties attributed to the thing defined can be as though "derived" from the definition. In actual development, the definition may be the last thing '6 a writer hits 11 . Or it may be formulammrmfimr 1' Filmy—WM prior tn the observations that it summarizes. Thus, insofar as all the attributes of the rug e ned fit the definition, the definition should be viewed as "prior" in this purer nontemporal sense of priority. Definitions are also the critmn‘ ' eguivalent of the lyric (though a poet might not think so!) in that the writer usually "hits on them.” They are “breakthroughs.” and thus are somewhat hard to come by. We 5 t ' u—hut they don’t always seem to “elicit: A definition should have just enough clauses, and no more. However, each clause should be like a chapter head, under which appropriate observa- , tions might be assembled, as though derived from it. I am offering my Definition of Man in the hope of either persuading the reader that it fills the bill, or of prompting him to decide what should be added, or subtracted, or in some way modified. H “H Man is the symboldtring animal. Granted, it doesn‘t come as much of rt surprise. But our definition i-: tw- ing offered not for any possible paradoxical value. '1 he aim is to get as CS‘HJt'In tinl fclauscs as ossible, and to meditate otWflicm. I remember one day at college when, on entering my phi osoph}; Class. I found all blinds up and the windows Open from the top, while a bird kept flying nervously about the ceiling. The windows were high. they extended almost to the ceiling; yet the bird kept trying to escape by batting against 4 FIVE BUMMAIHZINO assays Definition of Man 5 . I, . ‘ K: the Ceiling rather than dipping down and flying out one of the open windows. I at demagogic spellbinders. They cannot be filled with fantastic hatreds for While It kept circling thus helpless! our heads, the instructor ex— i" alien populations they know about mainly by mere hearsay. or with all plained that this was an example 0% This particular bird's in- . sorts of unsettling new expectations, most of which could not possibly turn “incl was to escape by he so: ;' ence it ignored the easy exit out as promised. through “"3 “dfldom- ‘3‘ l The "symbol-using animal," yes, obviously. But can we brin our- ‘ eren ngs would be if the bird could speak and. we selves to realize just what that formula implies, just how overwhelmingly could speak his language. What a simple statement would have served to ‘ty” has been built up for us through noth- solve his problem. "Fly down just a foot or so. and out one of those ing but our symbol systems? Take away our books, and what little do we windows." know abouthistqry, biography, even something so “down to earth" as the \Esnfii ran norm , relative position of son and continentsTWhat .la_ot.tr "reality" for today implications, with regard to a later clause in our definition. I witnessed the (beyond the paper-thin line of our‘own particular livSs) but all‘thia clutter behavior of am that was unquestionably a genius within the terms of its "tit' symbols about_the past eotfitiid'éii monsoon thingswe lit-totali "mainly through maps, magazines, nevvspapers. and theme about the present? In except one particularly stubborn or backward fellow who still remained for ieliool. as: they go numbing. to class, students turn from one idiom to an- other. The various courses in the curriculum are in etfeet but so many diff Ierent terminologies. And however important to us is the tiny sliver of cerned seem to consider his rightful lot. Then came the moment of genius. 7 reality each of us has experienced firsthand. the whole overall “picture” is but a construct of our symbol systems. To meditate on this fact until one , sees its full implications is much like peering over the edge of things into an ultimate abyss. And doubtless that's one reason why. though man is 'ypically the iymbol-usiug animal, hgelings to a kind a! naive verbal realism that refuses. to realizeJheIulLesteut oLthernle played‘by symbolicity in' , and with a slight jerk caused the young~ bis notions of realit net, with his outstretched neck. to lose balance and turn f the nest. In responding to words, with their overt and covert modes of perSua~ Surely this was an "act" 0 euros. This wren had discovered how to sion ("progress" is a typical one t ' ' ' use the principle of leverage as a way or getting a young bird off the nest. Had that exceptionally brilliant covery in such terms as come easy to symbol systems. we can imagine him giving a dissertation on “The Use of the Principle of Leverage as an Imj of simply giving it to the noisy youngster. the parent bird- held it at a dis- tancc. The fledgling in the nest kept stretching its neck out farther and eulahlc saving in bird—hours as compared with the traditional turbulent and .the symbol systems of dance, music, painting, and the like). inefficient method still in general practice. A road map that helps us easily find our way from one side of the continent to the other owes its great utility to its exceptional existential pov— ) The ability to descrth this method in words would have readily erty. it tells us absurdly little about the trip that is to be experienced in rt mud-.- it possible for all other birds to take over this same “act” of genius, I again. or the ability to conceptualize implies a kind of alteration without about things in terms Of What th which this innovation could probably not advance beyond the condition of beset by a paradox; Such ion a men? decidcnt to the condition of an invention. 6 FIVE SUMMARIZING nssns sheer emptiness, as Compared with the substance of the things they name. Nor is such abstractness confined to the language of scientific prose. Despite the concrete richness of the imagery in Keats's poems, his letters repeatedly refer to his art as "abstract." And the same kind of considerations would apply to the symbol systems of all other arts. Even so bodily a form of ex- pre3sion as the dance is abstract in this sense. (Indeed. in this regard it is so abstract that, when asking students to sum up the gist of a plot, I usually got the best results fr0m dance majors. with music students a close second. Students specializing in literature or the social sciences tended to get bogged down in details. They were less apt at "abstracting.") When a bit of talking takes place. just what is doing the talking? Just where are the words coming from? Some of the motivation must derive from our animality. and some from our symbolicity. We hear of “brainwashing.” of schemes whereby an "ideology" is imposed upon people. But should We stop at that? Should we not also see the situation the other way around? For was not the "brainwasher" also similarly motivated? Do we simply use words, or do they not also use us? An "ideology" is like a god coming down to earth. where it will inhabit a place pervaded by its presence. An "ideology" is like a spirit taking up its abode in a bodyf it makes that body .tnsaus'sestiiréfléin wan; andnatsamssssrwwlflexshsrnd arm in different waysh—é‘d 5 diilerent ideologyhapppncdqunhabit it.-- ' ' I am saying in enemy what? Paul said in another when he told his listeners that ‘fEaith’comes from‘heag'lngg'f He had a doctrine which. if his hearers were persuaded to accept it. would direct a body somewhat differ- ent1y from the way it would have moved and been moved in its daily rounds under the earlier pagan dispensation. Consider the kind of German boys and girls. for instance. who became burghers in the old days. who during the period of inflation and U.S.-financed reparation payments after World War I wanted but to be Wandering Birds. and who with the rise of the Third Reich wore got to functioning as Hitlerite fiends. With regard to this first clause in our definition (man as the "symbob using" animal) it has often been suggested that “symbohmaking” would be a better term. I can go along with that crncndalion. But I'd want to add one further step. Then. for the whole formula we'd have‘ the “symbol-using. symlml-making. and symbol-misusing animal." In rt-ft-rring tn the misuse of sunbnls. l have in mind not only such tlt‘nmgogic tricks as | how :ilrcntly iltctllinnud. 1 Man think of “psychogenic ilincsws.” riolcnt dislocations of bodin motion due to the improperly criticized action of symbolicity. A certain kind of food may be perfectly wholesome. an far as its sheer material nature is concerned. And people in some areas may particularly prize it. But our habits may be such that it seems to us loathsomc; and under those conditions. the vary thought of eating it may be nauseating to us. (The most drastic instance is. of course, Definition of Man 7 provided by the idea] diets of cannibals.) When the body rebels at such thoughts, we have a clear instance of the ways whereby the realm of sym- bolicity may afiect the sheerly biologic motions of animality. Instances of .“hexing” are of the same sort (as when a tribesmau, on entering his tent. finds there the sign that for some reason those in authority have decreed his death by magic, and he promptly begins to waste away and die under the burden of this sheer thought). A merely funny example concerns an anecdote told by the anthropolo- gist, Franz Boas. He had gone to a least being given by Esquimaux. As a good anthropologist. he would establish rapport by eating what they ate. But there was a pot full of what he took to be btubber. He dutifully took some, and felt sick. He went outside the igloo to recover. There he met an Esquimau Woman, who was scandalized when she heard that they were serving blubber. For they hadn't told her! She rushed in—but came out soon after in great disgust. It wasn't blubber at all, it was simply dumplings. Had the good savant only known, he could have taken dumplings in his stride. But it was a battle indeed for him to hold them down when he thought of them as blubberl So. in defining man as the symbol-using animal. we thereby set the conditions for asking: Which motives derive from man‘s animality, which from his symbolicity. and which from. the combination of the two? Physical— ity is, of course, subsumed in animality. And though the principles of sym- bolism are not reducible to shccrly physical terms (quite as the rules of football are not so reducible despite the physicality ot the players' hulks and motions as such), the meanings cannot be conceived by empirical organisms except by the aid of a sheerly physical dimension. One further point. and we shall have finished with our first clause. In his analysis of dream symbolism. Freud laid great stress upon the two processes of “condensation” and "displacement." His observations are well taken. But, since we re here using the term “symbolism” in a much wider sense, we might remind ourSelves that the processes of "condensation" and "displacement" are not confined merely to the symbolism of dreams and neuroses. but are also an aspect of normal symbol systems. A fundamental resource "natural" to symbolism is substitution, For instance. Wt: can purit- phrase a statement; it‘ you don't get it one way. we can try another way, We translate English into French. Fahrenheit into Centigrade. or use tin- Greek letter pi to designate the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. otherwise stated as 3.14159. . . . In this sense. substitution is :l quite rational rcsourc: of symbolism. Yet it is but a more general aspect of what Freud meant by "displacement" (which is a conqucd kind of substi- tution). Or. as Home Tooke pointed out a century and a half ago, a typical resource of language is abbreviation. And obviously, abbreviation is also a 8 PIVI svmmnatzmo essavs kind of substitution, hence a kind of "displaCement," while it is also neces- sarily a kind of "condensation." And language is an abbreviation radically. _ Ill refer to Mr. J ones by name. I have cut countless corners. as regards the particularities of that particular person. Or if I say, "Let‘s make a fire,” think of what all I have left out, as regards the specific doing. Or if I giye a book a title, I thereby refer to. while leaving unsaid, all that is subsumed under that title. Thus, condensation also can be viewad as a species of sub— stitution. And a quite "rational" kind of “condensation” has taken place if. instead of referring to “tables.” "chairs." and "rugs." I refer to "furniture," or if we put “parents” for "mother and father," and "siblings" for “brothers or siste rs." To say as much is to realize how many muddles such as Freud is concerned with may also be implicit in the symbols of “condensation” in his parficu' 1' sense of the term. For my remarks are not intended as a "refutation "of Freud's terminology. By all means, my haggling about "com densation“ and "displacement" as aspects of all symbolizing i: not meant to question his line of investigation. All lam sa‘ing is that there still are some dividing lines to be drawn between the two realms (of symbolism in his sense and symbolism in general). In any case, Freud (like Frazer) gives us ample grounds for trying never to forget that. once emotional involvement is added to symbolism’s penance, expiatiOn, compensation, paying of fines in lieu of bodily punish- ment. and cult of the scapegoat. ‘ Obviously, to illustrate this point. there is an embarrassment of riches everywhere we choose to look, in the history of mankind. But, almost by accident. let us pick one, from a book, Realm of the Incas, by Victor W. Von Hagen. I refer to the picture of a ‘ "and so left their tiredness behind." We are further told that "The Persians, the Chinese, and the Greeks adoptrtl more or less the same Custom." Substitution sets the condition for "transcendence." since there is a technical sense in which the name for a thing can be said to “transcend” the thing named (by making for a kind of “ascent” from the realm of motion and matter to the realm of essence and spirit). The subterfugcs of Definition of Man euphemism can carry this process still further, culminating in the resources of idealization that Plato perfected through his dialectic oi the Upward Way and Downward Way. The designation of man as the symbol-using animal parallels the tra- ditional formulas, “rational animal” and Homo rapiens—but with one notable diflerence. These earlier versions are honorifie, whereas the idea of symbohcrty implies no such temptation to selfwllatlery, and to this extent is more admonitory. Such definitions as "two~looted land-animal" (referred to in Aristotle's Topics) or “featherless biped" (referred to in Spinoza's Ethics) would be inadequate because they would confine the horizon to the realm of motion. So much for our first clause. _ E - III i'The second clause is: [355% am not wholly happy with the word, "inventor." For we con! not properly say that man "invented" the negative unless we can also say that man is_ thei‘iuvcntor'r’ ot_language itself. So mas sheerl e " ' 7 It In L_is;.,concErn'ed it mi ht be more securate to say {Kigalifliii‘e'at—td the negative.""inve_nted" man In 'anycas‘eTWEii'rEhé‘i' concernedfwlth the amthere are no negatives in nature, andjth'at this ingenious addition lo ihe universe is solely a product thankless task of celebrating that peculiarly human marvel, the negative. I have discussed elsewhere what an eye-opener the chapter, "The Idea of Nothing," was to me. in Bergson's Creative Evolution. It jolted me into realizing that there are no negatives in nature, where everything simply is One of the negativa’s prime uses role with regard to unfulfilled expectat‘ 10 FIVE SUMMARIZING ESSAYS situation, and a different situation occurs, I can say that the expected situa- tion did not occur. But so far as the actual state of afiairs is concerned, some situation positively prevails, and that's that. If you are here but some- one is expecting to meet you elsewhere, he will not meet you elsewhere because you pOSilchly are here. I can ask, "Does the thermometer read 54?" And if it registers anything in the world but 54, your proper answer can be “It is not 54." Yet there‘s no such thing as it's simply not being 54; it is 53, or 55, or whatever. . However, I would make one change of emphasis with regard to Berg- son's fertile chapter. His stress is a bit too “Scientistic” tor specifically "Dramatistic" purposes. Thus, in keeping with the stress upon matters of knowledge, he stresses the propositional negative, “It is not." Dramatist~ ically, the stress should be upon the hortatory negative, "Thou shalt not." The negative begins not as a resource of definition or information, but as a. 1 command, as “Don’t.” Its more "Scientistic" potentialities develop later. And whereas Bergson is right in observing that we can’t have an “idea of E nothing" (that We must imagine a black spot, or something being an- r nihilated, or an abyss, or some such), I submit that we can have an “idea of No." an "idea of don't." The Existentialists may amuse themselves and bewilder us with paradoxes about le Néam‘, by the sheer linguistic trick of treating no—thing as an abstruse kind of something. It's good showmanship. But there's no paradox about the idea of "don‘t," and a child can learn its meaning early. No, I must reviSe that statement somewhat. In one sense, there is a j paradox about “don’t.” For the negative is butra principle, an idea. not a name for a thing.'And thus, whereas an injunction such as “thou shalt not kill“ is understandable enough as a negative idea, it also has about its edges the positive image of killing. But the main point is: Though a child may not always obey the “thou shalt not,” and though there may inevitably be, in the offing. an image positiveiy inviting disobedience, the child "gets the idea.” in this sense, though we can't have an “idea of nothing." We can have an "idea of no." When first working on the negative, I thought of looking through the documents on the training of Helen Keller and Laura Bridge- man, whose physical privations made it so difficult to teach them language. And in both cases the records showed that the hortatory negative was taught first, and it was later applied for use as propositional negative, with out explicit recognition of the change in application. There is a superbly relevant passage in Emerson's early long essay, Nature, in the chapter “Discipline,” a paragraph ending thus: All things “shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the ten commandments." In our scheme, this could be presented thus: “Reverse the statement, start with the principle of negation as in the Mosaic Deca- Definilion of Man I i logue, and everything encountered along your way will be neg...
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