Kenneth Burke

Devilish Lies

Donald_Trump_official_portrait

(Credit: U.S. White House)

Lies—big and small, noble or not—are the way of the world, whether we speak of personal, social, and professional relationships or of advertising, media, and politics. Lying is normal—so it seems—yet still disturbing.

When we testify in court, we swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That is our oath. But as a juror, I find it difficult to determine whether the testifier’s truth telling is stretched, selective, or faked. Truth is not so transparent or objectively known as we’d like to think. Indeed, it is the jury’s job to make a judgment about what is true and what is false.

Among the factors that influence our assessment of a claim to truth, whether in the courtroom, the political arena, or elsewhere, are the credibility of the testifier, the coherence of the story told, common sense, our own experience, and perspective. Seldom, if ever, are we absolutely confident of our judgment, which can leave us feeling uneasy—a little or a lot depending on the circumstances and consequences. (more…)

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Hunt the Devil on Summer Vacation

Lake_Monroe_from_Clear_Creek_Township

Looking eastward over Lake Monroe southeast of Bloomington in Monroe County, Indiana, United States. The scene is on the western edge of the Hoosier National Forest; the photograph is taken from the northeastern corner of Clear Creek Township, and the distant shoreline is located in Salt Creek Township within the Paynetown State Recreation Area. (Credit: Nyttend / Wikimedia Commons)

Hunt the Devil is on holiday through the month of July.

The good life—a concept Kenneth Burke associates with the project of getting along with people—requires “adequate physical expression.” Otherwise, we become “bad poems.”

Physicality balances mentality. Aristotle’s anti-sedentary school of peripatetic philosophy, Burke held, was on the right track in this regard. Physicality helps to cultivate the sentiments and curb the overly ambitious passions, to enrich the social texture and live a more ecological life.

Burke’s idea of the good life is to channelize militaristic passions by transcending into a constructive, creative, cooperative way of being, which is the moral equivalent of war.

Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History, pp. 256-260.

RLI

Curving History

UGC_12158

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. (more…)

Language and Empire

Mosaic_depicting_theatrical_masks_of_Tragedy_and_Comedy,_2nd_century_AD,_from_Rome_Thermae_Decianae_(-),_Palazzo_Nuovo,_Capitoline_Museums_(12830396085)

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. (more…)

Fear

Ground_Zero_Mosque_Protest_American_Bomb

Photo of the Sunday, August 22, 2010 Cordoba House protest. (Credit: David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons)

Inspector Malcolm Fox—the protagonist of Ian Rankin’s Scottish crime novel, The Impossible Dead (NY: Little, Brown and Co., 2011)—reflects upon the ever-presence of fear, whether in news reports from 1985 or today:

When you’d stopped needing to fear a US-Soviet conflagration or an impending ice age, something else came along in its place. Fear of crime always seemed to outpace the actual statistics. Right now, people were fearing for their jobs and pensions, fearing global warming and dwindling resources. If these problems were ever resolved, new worries would fill the vacuum. (pp. 329-30)

Fear fills the vacuum of resolved problems. Fear engenders problems. Problems are a figment of fear, the chimera of exaggeration—or at least can be. Exaggeration, whether of crime levels or threats to national security, perpetuates the perception of crisis. The status quo remains on the verge of CRITICAL. (more…)

Soldiers of Peace

Gandhi walking under the rain after landing at Folkstone (UK), September 12, 1931. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Gandhi walking under the rain after landing at Folkstone (UK), September 12, 1931. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“I regard myself as a soldier, though a soldier of peace” (Mahatma Gandhi speaking in Geneva, Switzerland on December 10, 1931).

In a recent post, “The Myth of War’s Inevitability,” I recounted US Army Captain Paul Chappell’s rebuttal of the mythic premise that humans are naturally violent and warlike. He advances the alternative vision, grounded in Gandhi’s metaphor, of democratic citizens transcending war by regarding themselves as soldiers of peace [Will War Ever End? (Weston, CT: Ashoka Books, 2009)].

In a subsequent book, Peaceful Revolution (Westport, CT: Easton Studio Press, 2012), Chappell “outlines a path away from war” that channels the “warrior spirit toward peace” (pp. xiii, 41). The knowledge he gained at West Point about soldiering is repurposed to the pursuit of peace by nonviolent means. (more…)

Hope, Despair, and Something Missing

Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. (Credit: Collection of Curator Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command.)

Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. (Credit: Collection of Curator Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command.)

Two war stories caught my attention last weekend. One was about the apparent decline of the Islamic State. The other was about terrorism being a greater menace than ever before. In one sense, this is yet another example of the archetypal metaphor of high tides and low tides, which expresses the natural rhythm of forever warfare.

Something else seemed significant. It was hard to put my finger on it. There was a vague sense of something missing, something displaced by these stories of hope and despair.

The story of hope, from the perspective of the US and its allies, was that “the Islamic State appears to be fraying from within as dissent, defections and setbacks on the field sap the group’s strength and erode its aura of invincibility among those living under its despotic rule.”

The story of despair, again from the perspective of the US and its allies, was about the Director of National Intelligence informing Congress that terrorism trend lines are worse “than at any other point in history.” This on top of the commander of US special operations forces in the Middle East telling counterterrorism strategists that the Islamic State is a worse threat than al-Qaeda had ever been. A former CIA deputy director allowed that his “grandchildren’s generation will still be fighting this fight” against al-Qaeda and its spawn.

What is missing here? What lurks behind the image of war’s ebb and flow? (more…)

Indian Ruins

Palenque (Chiapas). Temple of inscriptions. (Credit: Jan Harenburg / Wikimedia Commons)

Palenque archeological site (Chiapas, Mexico). Temple of Inscriptions. (Credit: Jan Harenburg / Wikimedia Commons)

In the 19th century, José Martí warned that no empire is innocent of what Kenneth Burke called the “exaltation” of sacrificial human offerings: (more…)

‘American Sniper’ and Imperial Impasse

Navy SEAL Sniper Chris Kyle signs a copy of his new book “American Sniper” for a Camp Pendleton sailor at the base’s Country Store, Jan. 13, 2012. “American Sniper” is Kyle's first person account of how he went from a Texas cowboy to one of the most distinguished snipers in the military. The book also offers a view of modern warfare and one of the most in-depth looks into the secret world of special operations. (Credit: U.S. Marine Cpl. Damien Gutierrez / Wikimedia Commons)

Navy SEAL Sniper Chris Kyle signs a copy of his new book “American Sniper” for a Camp Pendleton sailor at the base’s Country Store, Jan. 13, 2012. (Credit: U.S. Marine Cpl. Damien Gutierrez / Wikimedia Commons)

The new film phenomenon, American Sniper, has met with spirited acclaim as well as vigorous denunciation. It is a box-office triumph for Hollywood but also a cultural signpost of imperial impasse in which Americans flail at each other over the issue of war or just withdraw into political disaffection.

The film marks a point at which a demoralized people feel the lacunae of an outworn worldview. Such moments provide an opening for fresh thinking, an opportunity to revise a guiding perspective so that it is better adapted to coping with a recalcitrant situation, even at the cost of “the deceptive comforts of ideological rigidity” (Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History, 3rd ed., p. 231).

Mixed reactions to the film are telling. (more…)

Prosaic Empire

Aerial view of the Washington Monument with the White House in the background.  DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway. (RELEASED)

Aerial view of the Washington Monument with the White House in the background. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway. (RELEASED)

Tom Englehardt is a persistent and perceptive critic of the war state. He closely monitors its operation and vigilantly critiques its rationalizations. His well-informed insights pierce the stupor of U.S. militarism.

So what does Englehardt mean when he writes about “Washington’s Walking Dead”?

He means: “when it comes to innovative responses to problems, our political system seems particularly airless right now”; “there are only two operative words in twenty-first-century Washington: more and war”; constant “chatter” about “security, safety, intelligence, and war” reveal why the nation’s capital is a “dead zone in terms of new ideas or ways of acting in our world.”

A lack of political imagination is discernible in the stale language of American empire. Facile and prosaic discourse signals a condition of decline in the curve of history. (more…)