Language and Empire


Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd century AD, from Rome Thermae Decianae (?), Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums. (Credit: Carole Raddato)

Whether one denies, embraces, or laments American imperialism, there is a motive for empire that typically goes unnoticed—the propensity of language for expansion and dominion. I don’t mean simply the globalization of English as the language of enterprise. I mean there is an underlying characteristic of language as a medium of thought and motivation that Kenneth Burke calls the principle of perfection.

The language we use to make sense of the world—to articulate a guiding perspective on reality—has its own dynamic and directionality. It prompts us to track down and round out the implications of its preferred terminology, to actualize its full potential to assign meaning and impose order on the world.

Language itself is imperialistic. It inclines toward hierarchy to the point of becoming “rotten with perfection.” So much so, that when it meets with resistance—disobedience “to the reigning symbols of authority”—it prompts us to retaliate against the nonconforming offender. The principle of perfection starts with giving things their “proper names” and ends with naming the “perfect villain.”[i]

It is easy to get caught up in the imperial dynamic of language without even realizing that it is alienating us from other ways of seeing and better ways of ordering the world. The principle of perfection renders us myopic and undemocratic, if democracy means holding competing perspectives mutually accountable, making communities more inclusive and egalitarian, respecting and bridging differences, promoting tolerance and contemplation, and persuading rather than coercing.

Getting caught up in language’s imperial dynamic means looking for scapegoats instead of considering our own shortcomings—projecting instead of reflecting. Just as Burke observed that the dueling empires of the Cold War, while blaming each other for all their troubles, threatened the world with nuclear extermination, we see today a self-perpetuating global war on terrorism that deflects attention away from our mistakes, allows for the erosion of democracy, expands the reach of the military, and breaks the budget.[ii]

Burke especially worried over the principle of perfection applied to the twin imperialisms of capitalism and technology, which undermine democracy. Humans are more than economic creatures, and technology pushed too far despoils the environment on which life depends.[iii]

The bad news is that language concocts a tragic cult of empire that alienates people from one another and their environment. If there is good news, it comes as an anti-utopian comic rejoinder—a comic heckling, in James Kastely’s words, that allows “us to see our common foolishness and not someone else’s villainy.” We need ironic distance to perceive and revise the terministic incentives of imperial overreach, to discover what’s overemphasized and underemphasized in language that narrows perspective. Burke’s comic corrective “teaches us to discount and round out the symbolic orders that we have inherited and within which we must live.” This is how, as symbol-using beings, we might “undermine the ambitions to empire that move us.”[iv]


[i] Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 16-18, 155; Kenneth Burke, Attitudes toward History, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 225-226, 422.

[ii] Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), 190, 236; Michael Blain, Power, Discourse and Victimage Ritual in the War on Terror (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012).

[iii] James L. Kastely, “Kenneth Burke’s Comic Rejoinder to the Cult of Empire,” College English 58.3 (1996): 307, 316.

[iv] Kastely, 320, 324.


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