Kenneth Burke on Aesthetics and Ethics

Some of the most thoughtful work I’ve seen regarding aesthetics and ethics, and the related, is by Kenneth Burke in The Philosophy of Literary Form (the 1941 date below is for the collection, not for the essays, most of which were written in the 1930s, I think):

(1941) Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” The Philosophy of Literary Form:

“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 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. 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” (253).

(1941) Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” The Philosophy of Literary Form:

“The present article proposes to say something further on the subject of art and propaganda. It will attempt to set forth a line of reasoning as to why the contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon ‘pure’ art…. Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable. And if it leads us to a state of acquiescence at a time when the very basis of moral integration is in question, we get a paradox whereby the soundest adjunct to ethics, the aesthetic, threatens to uphold an unethical condition. For this reason it seems that under conditions of competitive capitalism there must necessarily be a large corrective or propaganda element in art. Art cannot safely confine itself to merely using the values which arise out of a given social texture and integrating their conflicts, as the soundest, ‘purest’ art will do. It must have a definite hortatory function, an educational element of suasion or inducement; it must be partially forensic. Such a quality we consider to be the essential work of propaganda. Hence we feel that the moral breach arising from vitiation of the work-patterns calls for a propaganda art. And incidentally, our distinction as so stated should make it apparent that much of the so-called ‘pure’ art of the nineteenth century was of a pronouncedly propagandist or corrective coloring. In proportion as the conditions of economic warfare grew in intensity throughout the ‘century of progress,’ and the church proper gradually adapted its doctrines to serve merely the protection of private gain and the upholding of manipulated law, the ‘priestly’ function was carried on by the ‘secular’ poets, often avowedly agnostic. 

“Our thesis is by no means intended to imply that ‘pure’ art or ‘acquiescent’ art should be abandoned. There are two kinds of ‘toleration.’ Even if a given state of affairs is found, on intellectualistic grounds, to be intolerable, the fact remains that as long as it is with us we must more or less contrive to ‘tolerate’ it. Even though we might prefer to alter radically the present structure of production and distribution through the profit motive, the fact remains that we cannot so alter it forthwith. Hence, along with our efforts to alter it, must go the demand for an imaginative equipment that helps to make it tolerable while it lasts. Much of the ‘pure’ or acquiescent art of today serves this invaluable psychological end. For this reason the great popular comedians or handsome movie stars are rightly the idols of the people. Likewise the literature of sentimentality, however annoying and self-deceptive it may seem to the hardened ‘intellectual,’ is following in a direction basically so sound that one might wish more of our pretentious authors were attempting to do the same thing more pretentiously. On the other hand, much of the harsh literature now being turned out in the name of the ‘proletariat’ seems inadequate on either count. It is questionable as propaganda, since it shows us so little of the qualities in mankind worth saving. And it is questionable as ‘pure’ art, since by substituting a cult of disaster for a cult of amenities it ‘promotes our acquiescence’ to sheer dismalness. Too often, alas, it serves as a mere device whereby the neuroses of the decaying bourgeois structure are simply transferred to the symbols of workingmen. Perhaps more of Dickens is needed, even at the risk of excessive tearfulness” (271-278).

Historical tendency of liberation literature in the United States:
Key books of criticism by V. F. Calverton, Upton Sinclair and Bernard Smith explore the tendency (or tradition and lack thereof) of liberation literature far better – more thoroughly, incisively and in greater context despite flaws – than any other group of texts of the time period (add a number of essays by Kenneth Burke of the time), and they remain unusually valuable, and buried.


One thought on “Kenneth Burke on Aesthetics and Ethics”

  1. [The following comments are abstracted from my introduction to “Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare” — — Scott Newstok]

    Shakespeare was central to Burke’s theorizing. At one point early in his career, before the “urgencies and abruptness of social upheaval” of the 1930s interrupted him, Burke “had decided that, ideally, for each of Shakespeare’s dramatic tactics, modern thought should try to find the corresponding critical formation.” Despite Burke’s work with the Popular Front, his engagement with Marxist thought was oblique, and inevitably Burkean. In a thirty-year retrospect on his participation in the 1935 American Writers’ Congress, Burke recalls that “when the Leftists first began to move onto the scene, I began to fear that they were dishonoring Shakespeare. For a couple of years there, I took all sorts of notes for articles in defense of Shakespeare.” Burke thus stood in a fraught center between activists politically to his left, and fellow critics who found Burke’s own politics too radical. Burke was perhaps recollecting Mike Gold as one “dishonoring Shakespeare.” Gold’s 1930 manifesto for “Proletarian Realism” stridently envisions an advent (for now, deferred) of “a proletarian Shakespeare.” Gold’s opposition of proletarian literature to Shakespeare, or at least a proletarian Shakespeare to a bourgeois Shakespeare, involves forgetting an immensely populist culture of Shakespeare performance and oratory in the nineteenth century, as has been recovered by Lawrence Levine. Burke’s attempts to revoice Shakespeare for a modern audience were in the spirit of this strangely curtailed tradition of a demotic American Shakespeare, and akin to some of the same inclinations that led Orson Welles to his Everybody’s Shakespeare series in 1934 and his modern-dress Julius Caesar in 1937. As early as 1935 Burke contemplated a series of “Wolves’ Tales from Shakespeare,” playing off Charles Lamb’s Victorian retellings for children. Like his pieces on Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar, these were to be written in the first person, with a character stepping out of his role, à la Brecht, and rhetorically exposing himself to the audience. Drafts of Burke’s Othello essay were begun around this time, with Iago defending himself in his own voice. In subsequent revisions, Burke eventually dropped this approach, as it became burdensome for what grew into a far more sophisticated argument, but this initial gambit further supports the continuity between his impulses of the 1930s and his later, albeit more ideologically muted, studies of Shakespeare’s plays. Moreover, Burke’s work with Shakespeare and his social critique were reciprocal.

    His analysis of Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech in Julius Caesar fits more directly this “defense of Shakespeare.” Burke’s ventriloquism of Antony speaks to at least three audiences: the supposed 44 BCE Roman mob onstage; the 1599 “Elizabethan gluttons” in Shakespeare’s Globe; and the 1935 readers of “The Southern Review” (and, by extension, anyone who should be concerned about understanding demagoguery in demagogic times). This is much the same strategy of rhetorical unmasking Burke applied to Hitler’s shaping of his audience just a few years later. Even in the midst of the economic and political turmoil of the 1930s, in the midst of his trying to understand what it meant to be a committed intellectual, Burke could still imagine that if we lived in “an ideal world now, we’d all be spending our best hours trying to specify just what all is implied in the works of Shakespeare.”

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