Kenneth Burke Roadmap

This roadmap navigates through the centrifugal forces of Burkean theory by arranging concepts around the central principle of a complementary duality between formal structure and psycho-social dynamic that comes together at many different levels in Burke's thought, but particularly in his coinage of certain key terms that for him express both formal and social aspects at once. These terms act as bipolar foci for the interplay between aesthetic form and social ethic that is the foundation of dramatism as I understand it. The principle itself is evident in Burke's distinction between action and motion. While motion is the basis of "scientism," and assumes that change is the result of purely physical, autonomous processes, action captures the idea of "motion with intent." The bipolar term motive expresses the duality inherent in the motion-action distinction, since it takes the root common to "motion" but infuses it with intent. Further, "motive" has the double meaning of the purposes surrounding discourse as an ethical-aesthetic act, and also the motives or themes found within a discourse. For Burke there is a ligature between these two senses of motive so that the one invokes the other. Other such bipolar terms include form, identification, and symbol as seen below.

I. on identification, form and symbol

definition of form progressive form repetitive form
form is the psychology of the audience; the creation of an appetite in the mind of an audience and the satisfying of the appetite. ("Psych & Form," CS 31) syllogistic / qualitative ("Lex Rhet," CS 124-128) conventional / minor or incidental

Notice in the above quote that even "pure" form works as form because it plays upon the capacity of an audience to perceive and therefore to anticipate as well as generate formal patterns.


"Identification" is both transitive and intransitive. In the transitive, formal sense it means to put a name to something, in the intransitive, social sense it means to identify with. Burke uses the term in both senses but the two senses are not merely interchangeable—rather, the one invokes the other. (Zulick, "Ethos of Invention")

formal identification (regresses to repetitive form)

Recall a gradatio of political import, much in the news during the "Berlin crisis" of 1948: "Who controls Berlin, controls Germany; who controls Germany controls Europe; who controls Europe controls the world." As a proposition, it may or may not be true. And even if it is true, unless people are thoroughly imperialistic, they may not want to control the world. But regardless of these doubts about it as a proposition, by the time you arrive at the second of its three stages, you feel how it is destined to develop — and on the level of purely formal assent you would collaborate to round out its symmetry by spontaneously willing its completion and perfection as an utterance. Add, now, the psychosis of nationalism, and assent on the formal level invites assent to the doctrine. (Trad, ROM 57-58)

social identification (regresses to consubstantiation and victimage)

An imagery of slaying is to be considered merely as a special case of identification in general. Or otherwise put: the imagery of slaying is a special case of transformation, and transformation involves the ideas and imagery of identification. That is: the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing's nature before and after the change is an identifying of it. ("Range", ROM 20)


definition of rhetoric

For rhetoric as such is not rooted in any past condition of human society. It is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols. (Range, ROM 43)

definitions of symbol

Definition I: situation/strategy (incipient dramatism):

Every document bequeathed to us by history must be treated as a strategy for encompassing a situation (PLF 109)

Definition II: symbol as pattern of experience (Lex Rhet, CS 123-183)

The Symbol is the verbal parallel to a pattern of experience ("Lex Rhet", CS 152)

Universal Experiences

The various kinds of moods, feelings, emotions, perceptions, sensations, and attitudes discussed in the manuals of psychology and exemplified in works of art, we consider universal experiences (CS 149)

Patterns of Experience

  • Any specific environmental condition calls forth and stresses certain of the universal experiences as being more relevant to it, with a slighting of those less relevant. Such selections are "patterns of experience."
  • Once they exist, though they may be in themselves results, they become in turn "creative."
  • Thus, arising presumably as a method of adjustment to one condition, the pattern may become a method of

meeting other conditions — may become a typical manner of experiencing (CS 151-152).

II. On Perspective

perspective by incongruity

A method for gauging situations by verbal "atom cracking." (ATH 308-311)

"In a sense, incongruity is the law of the universe; if not the mystic's universe, then the real and multiple universe of daily life. Table, chairs, and diners are congruous, since experience has made them so. But table, chairs, living diner, and a dining lady manikin are incongruous. The result is a perspective with interpretative ingredients… We contend that "perspective by incongruity" makes for a dramatic vocabulary, with weighting and counter-weighting, in contrast with the liberal ideal of neutral naming in the characterization of processes."

Pentadic Ratios


four master tropes (GOM 503-517)

  • metaphor > perspective
  • metonymy > reduction
  • synecdoche > representation
  • irony > dialectic


terministic pyramids (What Are the Signs, LSA 373-374)

natural order words for the sheerly natural (the realm that is best charted and described in terms of motion and position)
verbal order words for the verbal realm itself, the terms of grammar, rhetoric, poetics, logic, dialectic, philology, etymology, semantics, symbolism, etc.
sociopolitical order words for the sociopolitical realm, for personal and social relations, including terms like "justice," "right," and "obligation," etc.
supernatural order words for the supernatural — whatever the supernatural may or may not be in reality, the terms for it are necessarily borrowed from our words for the three worldly orders

terministic screens

"Believe" Pick some particular nomenclature, some one terministic screen
"That you may understand" That you may proceed to track down the kinds of observation implicit in the terminology you have chosen, whether your choice of terms was deliberate or spontaneous. ("Terministic Screens," LSA 47)

words and things

We here ask what might be discovered if we tried upholding instead the proposition that "things are the signs of words." The things of nature, as so conceived, become a vast pageantry of social-verbal masques and costumes and guildlike mysteries, not just a world of sheer natural objects, but a parade of spirits, quite as the grass on a college campus has its meaning for us, not just as physical grass, but because of its nature as symbolic of the processes and social values associated with the order of formal education. In a subtler way, it is suggested, all nonverbal "nature" is in this sense not just itself for man, the word-using animal; rather, for man, nature is emblematic of the spirit imposed upon it by man's linguistic genius. (What Are the Signs, LSA 360-362)


proposes that language be viewed, not directly in terms of a word-thing relationship, but roundabout, by thinking of speech as the "entitling" of complex nonverbal situations (somewhat as the title of a novel does not really name one object, but sums up the vast complexity of elements that compose the novel, giving its character, essence, or general drift (What Are the Signs, LSA 361)

III.on dramaturgical frames

frames of acceptance and rejection

acceptance frames By "frames of acceptance" we mean the more or less organized system of meanings by which a thinking man gauges the historical situation and adopts a role within it. (ATH 5)
Examples James, Whitman, Emerson
Genres Epic, Tragedy, Comedy
rejection frames "Rejection" is but a by-product of "acceptance." It involves primarily a matter of emphasis. It takes its color from an attitude towards some reigning symbol of authority, stressing a shift in allegiance to symbols of authority.
Examples Machiavelli, Mandeville, Adam Smith
Genres Elegy, Satire, Burlesque

transitional genres

  • Grotesque: "The grotesque is the cult of incongruity without the laughter" (ATH 58)
  • Didactic

scapegoating and victimage (GOM 406)

  • original state of merger: in that the iniquities are shared by both the iniquitous and their chosen vessel
  • principle of division: in that the elements shared in common are being ritualistically alienated
  • a new principle of merger: this time in the unification of those whose purified identity is defined in dialectical opposition to the sacrificial offering

unification device (Hitler's Battle, PLF 202-204)

inborn dignity a positive universal elevating those who identify with it
projection device The "curative" process that comes with the ability to hand over one's ills to a scapegoat or cause outside the self
symbolic rebirth combination of dignity/projection that gives feeling of moving forward towards a goal
commercial use some material advantage accruing to acceptance of the device — a "noneconomic interpretation of economic ills."

consubstantiation and transubstantiation

contextual paradox: Here obviously is a strategic moment, an alchemic moment, wherein momentous miracles of transformation can take place. For here the intrinsic and extrinsic can change places. To tell what a thing is, you place it in terms of something else. (GOM 24)

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