Friday, December 29, 2017

Kenneth Burke

A reading from Kenneth Burke’s [1897-1993] Literature as Equipment for Living in The Critical Tradition

“Here I shall put down, as briefly as possible, a statement in behalf of what might be catalogued, with a fair degree of accuracy, as a sociological criticism of literature. Sociological criticism is certainly not new. I shall here try to suggest what partially new elements or emphasis I think should be added to this old approach And to make the ‘way in’ as easy as possible I shall begin with a discussion of proverbs- Step One.

Examine random specimens in The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. You will note, I think, that there is no ‘pure’ literature here. Everything is “medicine.” Proverbs are designed for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling. Or they name typical, recurrent situations. That is, people find a certain social relationship recurring  so frequently  that they must “have a word for it”

The point of issue is not to find categories that “place” the proverbs once and for all. What I want is categories that suggest their active nature. Here is no “realism for its own sake.” Here is realism for promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling, instruction, charting, all for the direct bearing that such acts have upon matters of welfare.

Step two: Why not extend  such analysis of proverbs to encompass the whole field of literature? Could the most complex and sophisticated works of art legitimately be considered somewhat as “proverbs writ large?” Such leads, if held admissible, should help us to discover important facts about literary organization ( thus satisfying the requirements of technical criticism). And the kind of criticism  from this perspective should apply beyond literature to life in general (thus helping to take literature out of its separate bin and give it a place in the general “sociological” picture.)

The point of view  might be phrased this way: Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations. In so far as situations are typical and recurrent in a given social structure, people develop names for them and strategies for handling them. Another name for strategies might be a called attitudes . . .

Looking a these definitions of strategy [ in the Concise Oxford, New English Dictionaries and Andre Cheron – ‘strategy signifies the maneuvers whose goal is attack and correct position’], I gain courage. For surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct larger movements and operations’ in one’s campaign of living. One ‘maneuvers,’  and the ‘maneuvering is an ‘art”.

One tries to fight on his own terms, developing a strategy for imposing  the proper “time, place and conditions.” But one must also, to develop a full strategy, be realistic. One must size things up’ properly. One cannot accurately know how things will be, what is promising and what is menacing, unless he accurately knows how things are. So the wise strategist will not be content with the strategies of the merely self-gratifying sort. He will “keep his weather eye open’ He will not too eagerly “read into” a scene an attitude that is irrelevant to it. He won’t sit on the side of an active volcano and “see” it as a dormant plain.

Often, alas, he will . . .

 What would such sociological categories be like? They would consider works of art, I think, as strategies for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off  evil eyes, for purification, propitiation, and de- sanctification, consolation, and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another. Art forms like “tragedy” or “comedy” or “satire” would be treated as equipment for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes. The typical ingredients of such forms would be sought. Their relation to typical situations would be stressed. Their comparative values would be considered, with the intention of formulating a “strategy of strategies”, the “over-all” strategy obtained by the inspection of the lot."

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