A group of about 20 gathered in Indianapolis prior to the S-USIH conference to discuss Kenneth Burke’s quirky 1937 text Attitudes Toward History (as Ben wrote about on Monday, kicking off Burke week here at the blog). Our seminar, the idea of which was premised on the semi-annual meetings held by the UK-based Intellectual History Group, was highly rewarding. It turns out intellectual historians enjoy getting together to discuss books! We plan to do this again next year in DC, so if you’re interested in participating, send me a message.
We selected a Burke text for our discussion in part because he seems to be making a comeback as an important figure for US intellectual historians. This minor Burke revival is due mostly to Michael Denning, who analyzes Burke as a key theorist of The Cultural Front, although Robert Genter also contributes to Burke mania by positioning him as the central protagonist of what he calls Late Modernism. This double-recovery is ironic since these two intellectual trajectories—Denning’s laboring of American culture, and Genter’s pre-postmodernism—are somewhat at odds. But it also makes sense because Burke is an eclectic thinker who defies easy categorization.
Denning is mostly interested in Burke’s manifesto for radical cultural workers, “Revolutionary Symbolism in America,” which he calls “a central document in the developing notion of a cultural front,” and also his important 1932 book, Permanence and Change, where Burke argued that “the only coherent and organized movement making for the subjection of the technological genius to humane ends is that of Communism.” Denning calls Permanence and Change “one of the classics of Western Marxism” in its bringing together of Marx and Freud. Burke is part of a lost socialist tradition that Denning believes American Studies needs to reclaim.
Genter, who focuses on Burke’s postwar criticism, says that he best represents what he isolates as “late modernism”—“a maturing of modernism, an overcoming of the elitism that hampered high modernism and a rejection of the more mystical claims of romantic modernism.” Burke was among those late modernists like C Wright Mills, Norman Brown, and James Baldwin who “treated art (as well as discursive forms) as persuasive elements that intervened in and critiqued embedded assumptions of everyday life.” Burke and late modernists were those who critiqued modernism from within—who wanted a rhetoric that communicated with more and more people instead of merely expressing the individual desires of the artist—but who remained committed to the modernist project of exploring new forms of consciousness instead of the postmodernist project of recycling old forms as pastiche.
So we have Burke the revolutionary socialist thinker, and Burke the democratizer of modernism. Are these two trajectories in fact at odds? I would argue that Burke nicely reconciles these two intellectual traditions, and that Attitudes might best be thought of as a key text in this reconciliation or transition. In Attitudes, Burke was insistent that we democratize our objects of literary analysis, consistent with the Western Marxism of Gramsci or Benjamin, where Denning wants to peg Burke. But such democratizing sensibilities also cohere with the anti-elitism of Genter’s late modernism. Burke pursed literary criticism not as a formalistic enterprise—not as the elitist, high modernist activity of the New Criticism—but rather for its sociological impact. In Attitudes, Burke insists that literary symbols always had political and social connotations.
The main thrust of Attitudes is Burke’s argument about how humans understand historical change, and more important, how they conceptualize and adapt to historical change. This is what Burke called “frames of acceptance,” by which he meant “the more or less organized system of meanings by which a thinking man gauges the historical situation and adopts a role with relation to it.” “‘Frames of acceptance’ are not the same as passiveness. Since they name both friendly and unfriendly forces, they fix attitudes that prepare for combat.” In this Burke gives us the examples of Aquinas and Marx. Both were realistic in their assessment of the existence of class distinction. But Aquinas’s frame of acceptance was that class division was God’s punishment and thus humans were to adjust to it. Marx simply wanted to obliterate classes. That was his mental adaptation to capitalism. Burke applied his theory about “frames of acceptance” to the long history of capitalist development. When cultures stretch to what Burke called their “Malthusian limits,” crises arose. Some frames of reference at that point “seek to develop attitudes of resignation whereby we may make the best of things as they are.” (Aquinas). Others go for rejection (Marx). But rejection alone is the work of cranks. Marx did more than reject: he laid the foundations for a vast new frame of reference.
Burke illustrates this historical theory in Part II of Attitudes, “The Curve of History,” which was perhaps my favorite part of the book. What I liked so much about this Marxist vision of the longue duree was not its historical accuracy, which is suspect in its broad sweeps, but rather Burke’s arguments about how people defended and rejected historical epochs. Both revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries participated in the symbolic landscape by the “the stealing back and forth” of symbols. Those who wanted change were compelled to steal the symbols—frames of acceptance—of their adversaries. And vice versa, those who sought to defend privilege often did so by stealing the symbols of the last generation of revolutionaries. “Particularly in America today, there is much strategic maneuvering for the possession of the symbol ‘liberty,’ as the representatives of the dispossessed and the representatives of the big possessors both lay siege to it in the battle of words…”