Curving History


Image UGC 12158 of a galaxy, taken by the Hubble Telescope, 20 December 2010. (Credit: NASA)

The contemporary world is accustomed to the language of progress, a linear sense of ongoing change, a process of betterment that moves upward and onward. It presumes that what went before was primitive, or at least less advanced, than what followed. We advance step by step toward the future and eventual perfection.

Progress—as the commonsense discourse of development (of upward, onward, linear change from ancient primitiveness through advancement to future perfection)—clusters with terms such as making headway, forging ahead, forward-looking, evolution, growth, maturation, expansion, improvement, efficiency, and enrichment. Thus, no lesser light than Benjamin Franklin is widely credited with saying, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”

The language of progress inevitably extends to politics, economics, and technology. As a function of language, consistent with Kenneth Burke’s theory of symbolic action, “progress” seeks its own terministic perfection to the point of overemphasizing profit, individualism, and power by underemphasizing society, community, and cooperation.

Burke critically engages this discursive motive in Attitudes Toward History (1937; 3rd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) with a five-act historical narrative called “The Curve of History.” His dramatic narrative bends the linearity of progress, curving its mythos back toward a notion of people living in society and acting together politically. He aims to articulate a better, more “ecological” balance between economic-material circumstances and socio-political motives.

The story Burke tells is about a series of changes in “productive and mental patterns,” which are aggregate frameworks of interpretation or “symbolic culminations.” The story, in sum, progresses through five acts.

Act I features the decline of Hellenistic Stoicism and the emergence of Christian evangelism. Act II is the medieval synthesis of “non-parliamentary concepts of authority,” with “the family metaphor stressing obedience and custom.” Act III is the peripety or watershed moment of Protestant transition—of Renaissance, Reformation, negativism, Enlightenment, and individualism. Act IV is the historical shift from Protestant negativity to naïve capitalism—the market and the laws of supply and demand. In Act V, collectivism begins to emerge as a corrective to the “growth of monopoly and the financial corporation.” This is the partially unfinished act in Burke’s historical drama, the act we can help to write. The recovery of the commons through the back door—by socializing the losses caused by capitalism (paying back to society) instead of abruptly turning to socialism as a replacement paradigm—is the task for present times.

To recover a sense of community, which balances capitalism’s overemphasis on individualism, requires an attitude that is neither “wholly debunking” nor “wholly euphemistic.” In Burke’s historical narrative, we cannot afford to reject capitalism outright or elevate it beyond the reach of constructive criticism. The heroic quest of tragedy requires a comic corrective to bring the cosmic vision of capitalism back down to earth before it crashes and burns of its own accord.

Burke’s comic corrective is a project of thoughtfully revising the linear story of capitalist progress by bending it to incorporate social motives, which is a step toward restoring the pre-Hellenistic (pre-imperialistic) Athenian emphasis on citizenship and political being. The cyclical sensibility of Burke’s narrative does not return to the original starting point so much as it recovers some of what was lost from the past and integrates it into the present framework of motives to round it out and achieve a better balance.

Language—specifically, the migration of metaphors—plays a key role in composing an attitude that is more balanced and that resists the culmination of capitalism into a globalized and militarized imperium. Metaphors migrate when we use terms conventionally associated with one category of thought, feeling, and action (their literalized use) to name a different category of thought, feeling, and action (their figurative application). The figurative application of literalized (dead) metaphors creates a fresh way of seeing and understanding, what Burke calls a “perspective by incongruity,” such as the potentially democratizing image of a civic fiduciary—a legal and ethical responsibility to invest in the best interests of the people as a whole. The question becomes, then, what symbolic bridging and merging by metaphorical migration can bend history toward a more rounded and balanced synthesis of motives.



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