Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The Malcolm Gladwell of the 1930s

I went up the Delaware to New Hope, PA this weekend with some friends I hadn't seen in a while, and managed re-make my acquaintance with another old friend in a used bookstore: the writer, poet, critic, sociologist, philosopher, literary theorist, and general smartie Kenneth Burke. I picked up a copy of his Permanence and Change (which in the current edition has the much more descriptive subtitle An Anatomy of Purpose) and immediately remembered upon turning its pages both why I like Burke so much and why it's necessary to sing his praises.

More than thirty years prior to the emergence of Deconstruction, Hermeneutics, and the Nouvelle Critique, Burke argues for a fundamentally linguistic and interpretive theory of human psychology and human action. But Burke's theory of language is rooted in a thick version of pragmatism -- grounded in the practical experience, psychology, and symbol-making of a range of ordinary activities -- rather than the towering necessity of codes, laws, and structures. His targets in this book are behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism -- all of which, he tries to show, ontologize human motivation when are they're really doing is creating a hierarchy of different kinds of explanations for motivation. In this book, Burke's dismissals seem a little pat, but the underlying argument is brilliant nonetheless.

More than just smart, Burke is fun. I love the way he borrows -- Thorstein Veblen's concept of "trained incapacity" turns into a kind of meditation on how our ability or inability to create adequate symbols to new experiences (when those symbols have always proved adequate before) can in turn keep us from recognizing those experiences at all. I don't know if it pops up in this book, but the phrase he coined for this is "terministic screen." If I were to try to reconcile Burke with Marxism or Psychoanalysis (a reconciliation to which he leaves himself open), I would argue that the problem with naive Marxism or Freudianism is that they leave out this linguistic dimension: ideological or neurotic blindness is caused less by some problem in the brain than the paucity of terms available to us for debate. But to a certain degree, some kind of terministic blindness is inevitable: every technical or non-technical language you adopt privileges some ways of talking about a phenomena and closes off others. Paul de Man wrote a book called "Blindness and Insight" forty years later milking just this idea and became the most famous former secret Nazi in academe. But that's another story.

One remarkable aspect of Burke's account is that motivation is dug out from the deep interiors of the subconscious and exteriorized, but that exteriority in many ways makes it more obscure. "Any explanation is an attempt at socialization," Burke writes, "and socialization is a strategy; hence, in science as in introspection, the assigning of motives is a matter of appeal." (24-25) And later: "A motive is not a fixed thing, like a table, which one can go and look at. It is a term of interpretation, and being such it will naturally take its place within the framework of our Weltanschauung as a whole." Motives, properly speaking, do not motivate at all, at least in any causal sense; they are the terms with which we justify our actions post hoc, or teleologically at best. Motives are more interesting than causes, since they reflect our understanding and legitimizing of our own activity, which can scarcely be reduced or atomized. This helps to account for the complexity of human behavior; as both homo sapiens and homo significans, the symbol-making animals demand complex accounts precisely because they are able to give such complex accounts of themselves. Or, as Burke says,

(t)hough all organisms are critics in the sense that they interpret the signs about them, the experimental, speculative technique made available by speech would seem to single out the human species as the only one possessing an equipment for going beyond the criticism of experience to a criticism of criticism. We not only interpret the character of events... we may also interpret our interpretations. (6)

1 comment:

erin said...

Hey, I saw your post on Burke and trained incapacity...wanted to let you know that you are wrong about the origin of the phrase. It didn't come from Veblen (even though Burke thought so). I am trying to figure out if Burke created it himself (not unlike him to do things of that nature) or if it was missattributed to Veblen long before that. Do you have any idea about where it did come from (if not Veblen)? Thanks-please email me back at wais0002@umn.edu