Kenneth Burke (1897-1993)


Our English 612 class was introduced to Kenneth Burke's philosophy through David Blakesley's 2002 book The Elements of Dramatism. 

 "Dramatism is a philosophy of language...[that] analyzes language and thought as modes of action rather than as means of conveying information. Thus, for dramatism, language is a form of symbolic action" (Blakesley 5, emphasis in original). 

 I had previously encountered Burke's "pentad" as a prewriting exercise we use where I work as a peer tutor. The pentad consists of five elements--act, scene, agent, agency, purpose--that highlight the many angles available in the process of interpretation or representation. As a tutor, I only understood the pentad as a device to help students come up with a full description of their topic, and I really thought it to be one of the least productive prewriting strategies that I knew of.

 Through Dr. Stacey's and David Blakesley's translations of Burke's ideas, I realized that my knowledge of the pentad was only the tip of the iceberg. The pentad allows analysis of scenes in terms of actors and agents, and it highlights the different motives and perspectives that render meaning from reality. When Dr. Stacey asked the class Burke's famous question, "What is involved when we say what people are doing, and why they are doing it?" I realized that the pentad holds endless possibility for deconstructing representations, which I think is very important.

 In addition to the pentad, Blakesley covers Burke's redefinition of rhetoric as aimed at identification and consubstantiality. Blakesley also analyzes ambiguity and form in addition to summarizing Burke's parlor definition of discourse and his concept of terministic screens.

 Blakesley's text is a rounded and in-depth explanation of Burke's dramatism, complete with examples of dramatistic analysis and a glossary. The chapters are concise and the book covers an impressive amount of information in only 194 pages.

 It was an intriguing book that gave me a better handle on many of Burke's concepts, but I still wish we could discuss it more. Burke's ideas seem to be the kind of information that is better understood in groups, in discussion and dialogue rather than just reading and responding to the text individually. 

 I think that sometimes Dr. Stacey shies away from talking about Burke too much in his classes. I suspect that he is trying to make sure his own biases and interests aren't influencing the course content too much-- I think he doesn't want to push Burke on students too forcefully.

 But, I think that Burke is a very interesting and relevant character for the fields of rhetoric and composition and as such, should be studied thoroughly. I think we are privileged to have Dr. Stacey as a mediator for studying Burke. Dr. Stacey's interest in and knowledge of Burke's work enriches his lectures and discussions. I honestly doubt that I could have come to the (still superficial and a bit fuzzy yet fully respectful) understanding of Burke's work without having a professor as enthusiastic for Burke as Dr. Stacey is.

 In reflection of the class as a whole, I wish Dr. Stacey had indulged his Burkean side more often. Then again, maybe Burke is just one of those authors whose work is so dense and vast that even a class fully focused on him would still feel unfinished.