The following guest post is by Peter Kuryla, associate professor of history at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Pete hosted an invigorating two-day seminar at Belmont last week and invited me down to talk with him and his colleagues about Kenneth Burke and the culture wars. The following is Pete’s eclectic and smart take on the Burke text that we read and discussed. Enjoy.
During a recent reading of Kenneth Burke’s “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” (LAPE) (1955) among some friends old and new, we were struck by how timely the essay was for concerns that many of us have today, particularly when the humanities seem under renewed assault by disciples of austerity. 
But reflecting on the timeliness of LAPE wouldn’t be much fun without being a little perverse, particularly when it comes to writing about a critic as attuned to comic interventions as Burke was.  So I’d like to make an argument for how the essay might complicate ideas of time and place by thinking about, of all things, the literary critic Lionel Trilling’s take on the novel Huckleberry Finn from the middle of the twentieth century. Trilling might help situate Burke and his essay historically, in the process showing its usefulness for us today, demonstrating at the same time how perilous and incomplete any attempt like this is. Historical consciousness often works like that, as a sort of ironic palimpsest.
Dedicated readers of this blog no doubt recall the relatively recent Kenneth Burke week staged here late last year, so I refer you back to those essays for more context and discussion. With LAPE, Burke’s applied his own ideas about symbolic action in a pedagogical context. A unique and idiosyncratic contribution to a multi-authored volume entitled Modern Philosophies and Education: The Fifty-fourth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, it appeared in that book amidst several different applications of philosophical perspectives to educational problems. For example, different authors considered Thomism, Logical Empiricism, Marxism, Realism, and Liberal Christianity in relation to educational theory and practice.  (Somehow Jacques Maritain’s chapter on Thomism slipped in there as a “modern philosophy.” I guess Neo-Thomism counts.)
Hitting the highlights and skipping about a bit for admittedly tendentious reasons, in LAPE Burke dealt with the “ontological” rather than “epistemological” dimensions of education. Less concerned with how a student might come to know the world in the first place than with the worldly tumble of symbolic action, Burke’s emphasized the linguistic part of experience, including the ways in which presumably “extra-linguistic” parts of human experience, while not entirely reducible to language, were nonetheless interwoven with the symbols we make to achieve our purposes. 
Burke called his method “dramatistic.” If an analysis of a drama concerned content, things like working out characters’ motivations and the like, the “dramatistic” moved to what might loosely be called the content of the form, where the reader considered the underlying structures of a drama to reveal the nature of the symbolic action shared by human beings across time. For Burke, the dramatistic required “a critical or essayistic analysis of language and thence of human relationships generally, by use of terms derived from the contemplation of drama” (264).
Great dramas and great dramatic texts like those of Shakespeare made up “test cases” that one can use to explore the grammar or logic of human motives, the nature of symbolic action (264). The method was formal, dealing especially with the bounded world of fictional texts, but not necessarily limited to those works. While Burke seemed to suggest that the world was a text, he was a bit slippery on the question. Our everyday lives weren’t the same as dramatic texts because they lacked finality.  Reading texts from a dramatistic perspective best got at what made us tick because the method (again) considered ontological questions about what it meant to be a human, avoiding epistemological questions about how precisely we came to know the world. Burke’s approach “contends that the basic motives of human effort are concealed behind the clutter of the machinery, both technological and administrative, which civilization has amassed in the attempts to live well. It contends that by a methodic study of symbolic action men have their best chance of seeing beyond this clutter, in the ironic nature of the human species” (270).
Considering “the ironic nature of the human species,” Burke advocated an “admonitory” rather than “promissory” view of education. The promissory view is often vocational. The student jumps through assorted educational hoops for a payoff at the end. The humanities, in this view, are there for people to get ahead or make it, to be successful. Many of us make promissory arguments to students, especially those who take courses for general education credit. I know I do. The humanities encourage, along this line of thinking, a kind of cultural literacy or critical thinking fit for the marketplace. In history courses we teach people to write, speak, and think in ways applicable to whatever career one chooses. Burke saw this business as mostly wrongheaded.  A dramatistic education said no in a paradoxical way, cultivating instead a method of distrust about human motives, instilling in the student a “fear of symbol-using.” Human beings’ resourcefulness, our great talent for harnessing the power of symbols, was also the greatest source of our mistakes and foibles. We should admonish when we educated, considering along the way the “Faustological” nature of our ambitions. The best mode of being was a kind of “smiling hypochondriasis” where we were constantly worried about our shared disease of ambition and cleverness, always and everywhere attuned to the ways in which such ambitions had ironic and comic dimensions (271-273). Rather than shutting down options or encouraging nihilism or despair, this kind of suspicion would prepare students for adult life beyond the mere mechanisms of the market.
With what he called a “charting of equations,” Burke began to describe what this method might look like: “When you consult a text, from which you hope to derive insights as regards our human quandaries in general, you begin by asking yourself ‘what equals what in this text?’ And then, next, ‘what follows what in this text’” (270). For example, if this character equals the hero and that character equals the villain in a text, then what does that tell us about the author’s sense of heroism or villainy, and in turn, what does that tell us about the social order of which writer and text were a part? Can we figure out the personality of the text and its world and thus the personality of the social order embedded in the text, ultimately giving us a view of the ironic character of human beings’ shared predicament (275, 276)? According to Burke, we might use this method for any text, including those in scientific disciplines, “Since every specialty has its terminology, it can be studied like any poem or philosophic treatise, for its ‘equations’” (277). (Maybe I’ll pitch this idea to the STEM office at the university where I teach.)
Reading Lionel Trilling’s Huckleberry Finn with Kenneth Burke
Casting around for examples of the sort of thing Burke was after, I couldn’t help but think about Lionel Trilling’s now canonical reading of Huckleberry Finn in The Liberal Imagination (1950). So I thought it might be fun to make something like a Burkean reading of Trilling’s reading of Twain’s novel. Trilling also adds a dimension to Burke though, in that the former considered the relationship between an author (Twain) who wrote about a time and place (the antebellum U.S.) removed from his own (the late 19th century U.S.). In Imagination, Trilling argued that Huck and Jim made up a “community of saints,” an ideal society of sorts, with Jim serving as Huck’s surrogate father. Parsing the relationship between these two heroic fictional characters and their creator Twain, Trilling got at something like what Burke called the “personality” of the text and its social order.
For Trilling, the critical moment in the novel came when Huck, the hero, struggles over whether or not he should expose Jim as an escaped slave. “The satiric brilliance of the episode” he wrote, “lies…in Huck’s solving his problem not by doing ‘right’ but by doing ‘wrong.’” At first, Huck experiences “all of the warmly gratifying emotions of conscious virtue” by deciding to tell on Jim. He salves his conscience by complying with the dominant moral codes of his time and place. A white boy in antebellum America shouldn’t harbor a fugitive slave. And Huck was no abolitionist. Yet, in the end, he changes his mind, choosing to lie for Jim because of his devotion to his friend. Huck figures he was damned for having made the decision that history would eventually prove the “right” one. He redeems himself by consciously choosing an antebellum form of hell, brimming with whatever ethical anxieties such perdition implied.
But Trilling saw that Huck’s fateful decision was really the culmination of the experiences the two heroes had while afloat on the fickle Mississippi (a “river god”), where Jim and Huck had to work out how to live with one another while in the tight quarters of the raft. For example, after cruelly deceiving Jim one occasion, Huck decides he must apologize. And so, the critic concluded, “Huck’s one last dim vestige of pride of status, his sense of his position as a white man, wholly vanishes.” Whatever the pieties of the antebellum moral universe, Huck realized that he had to make amends for hurting his friend’s feelings. In a novel full of lies and trickery, the text’s notion of moral heroism inevitably stood out.
For Trilling, the dialectical nature of Huck’s anxiety, produced by the interaction between a historically conditioned ethical sensibility and the more essential ethics of friendship, showed that Twain’s novel was both a product of the time in which the writer wrote it and a demonstration of much greater, unquestionably human insights. It was, in other words, both “universal” and “local and particular.”  Trilling knew well enough that it was easy to argue that interpersonal relationships always piqued the moral sensibility and so made up “universal” truths of a sort. By emphasizing the “particular” though, Trilling meant to show that Huck’s moral universe, in many ways explained by his relationship with Jim and his awe for the river god, acted, for Twain, as a lament for what seemed to be a more innocent time before the Gilded Age triumph of machines and the almighty dollar. The novel was “a hymn to an older America forever gone.” Discomfort with his own time and place gave the novelist access to “the truth of moral passion…the virtue and depravity of man’s heart,” which for him resided in an earlier period in history “which maintained its sense of reality,” namely, Huck’s antebellum world.  Thus the sensitivity to truth that so defined Huckleberry Finn for Trilling was rather ironic: the boy shared the moral virtues of his age but chose to violate them in favor of the more transcendent virtues of friendship, which, the critic explained, made sense only because Twain felt dislocated in his own time, longing for Huck’s despite being well aware of its faults.
By now, we can see how Trilling’s reading amounted to a classic case for irony and “complexity,” a consistent term of art that characterized a certain variety of late modernist, Cold War liberalism, of which Burke to a certain extent was part. In keeping with the book’s title, Trilling also gussied up the liberal tradition of social contract theory. Trilling’s Twain, a kind of vernacular Rousseau, lamented the chains of status and society, casting the central moral drama of the antebellum world (slavery) by featuring a black man and a white boy who happen to work up a sentimental social contract between father and son on a raft in the Mississippi. From its liberal ironist perspective, Trilling’s reading of Huckleberry Finn didn’t make absolute or categorical conclusions about a society being good or bad. In Burkean terms, as Trilling worked through what the correlations or “equations” in the book were, he showed that we had to be provisional about what bad and good means. Trilling’s Twain showed us that the jury was out on the question of how the social order and the particularities of the case related to one another when it came to “persecutional words” (Burke’s phrase) like law, right, justice, and so on (276). What Huck saw as right wasn’t legal, but Huck also accepted antebellum damnation because he figured it was, in a sense, just.
So Huckleberry Finn, understood in terms of Trilling’s take on Twain’s world, makes us realize that moral clarity is fleeting and that we should, following Burke’s sense of the negative, be wary of seeking forms of symbolic action that lend themselves to certainties. Obviously what counts as sin (maybe the greatest “persecutional” word?) for one time and place doesn’t for another. Who can say that, from the remove of the present, we make our world any better than the one inhabited by those in the past, no matter how morally compromised that past seems to us now?
Apparently some critics of Huckleberry Finn faulted the ending for being too long and contrived. Trilling acknowledged this, but he largely dismissed that criticism on the grounds that Twain needed a device for Huck to step back from heroism to the anonymous life he preferred. I would suggest that on this question of Twain’s ending to the novel, we might make a Burkean intervention against Trilling. Despite Huck’s lie, we should recall that Jim is eventually caught. In a remarkable coincidence, he is sold to Sally and Silas Phelps, Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle, who intend to return Jim for a reward. In a bit of dumb luck, Huck happens on the Phelps’ plantation and is mistaken for Tom Sawyer, from whom they expect a visit. Huck plays along and so does Tom when he does appear a little while later, the latter posing as a younger half-brother Sid to Huck’s Tom. To his great delight, Huck pretty easily gets Tom to agree to help him free Jim. But in Tom’s case, it’s not for reasons of any great moral struggle. With Tom in the lead, the boys take weeks to set Jim free because Tom decides it would be more interesting to stage an elaborate escape scenario along the lines of his favorite adventure stories. Twain thus drags Trilling’s version of Huck’s victory over his antebellum conscience through the muck of a preposterous, comic turn of events. Tom Sawyer, and by extension Huck, subject Jim to a hellish imprisonment so that Tom Sawyer can play out his boyish fantasies. To modern readers, it’s all unnecessarily cruel, a sort of extended darky joke at Jim’s expense. 
Perhaps a Burkean reading of Twain’s ending to Huck Finn troubles considerably Trilling’s attempts to lend it moral grandeur, whatever its “satiric brilliance.” Following Burke’s dramatistic pedagogy, we should be suspicious of all symbolic action, even literary criticism. That the novel’s comic ending makes the present-day reader uneasy if not angry shows the perils in Trilling’s creation a moral symbolic world out of Twain’s feeling for a past somehow less illusory than his own. As we read Trilling’s text and witness him imagining the structure of Twain’s world and the world of Huckleberry Finn, sorting through villains and heroes, good and bad, we can’t help but consider the “persecutional” words of our own place and time. Burke, Trilling, Twain, and Huckleberry Finn set a mean trap.
Back to Burke: Stepping Aside to View our Predicament
Toward the end of LAPE, Burke described a traditional four rung “educational ladder” of forms of inquiry. The lowest rung was indoctrination, the second lowest indoctrination while giving the devil his due, the third roughly anthropological or humanitarian involving fair play for others’ perspectives, while the final was the mature sort, not just fair play, but genuine learning from others, where the student incorporated others’ perspectives.
The “dramatistic” method for Burke, though, meant “a step to one side” of the ladder. His linguistic approach went deeper than those four approaches, encompassing all of them, moving instead to questions about the style of the argument. Burke probably put it most neatly in a discussion of debating:
[W]ere the earlier pedagogic practice of debating brought back into favor, each participant would be required, not to uphold just one position but to write two debates, upholding first one position and then the other. Then, beyond this, would be a third piece, designed to be a formal transcending of the whole issue, by analyzing the sheerly verbal maneuvers involved in the placing and discussing of the issue, not even in the reasonable, sociological sense of discovering that, “to an extent, both sides are right.” Nor would we advise such procedures merely as training in the art of verbal combat. For though such experiences could be applied thus pragmatically, the ultimate value in such verbal exercising would be its contribution toward the “suffering” of an attitude that pointed toward a distrustful admiration of all symbolism, and toward the attempt systematically to question the many symbolically-stimulated goads that are now accepted too often without question (287).
Reading Trilling’s Huck by these lights gives us something to think about. In abstract and prescriptive terms, Trilling meant to tell us that the feeling of dislocation from our own time can make us feel for a time in the past that we perceive as less complicated by virtue of being morally decisive if flawed. The path was clearer then. Confronted with the hopeless tangle of questions that bedevil us now, we doubt whether it’s possible to be moral any longer. Being what we are though, we can still create fictional worlds that, at their best, allow us to represent truths that might be considered by some “universally human,” ironically because of their irreducible particularity and difference. The human beings in whom we entrust these truths are both somehow like us and completely unlike us. Burke would have us properly suspicious of such symbolic acts of affiliation with a past, always aware of the irony of our attempts and attuned to the comedy of our outcomes. After all, as symbol-using creatures, we set the same trap for ourselves over and over again.
Amidst his many negations though, Burke did admit some positive outcomes. There could be aesthetic delight at the end of all of this, for “if we accept a pedagogically ‘mortifying device’ that makes us theoretically old while we are still physically young, we may get ‘as a bonus’ a compensatory device that can keep us theoretically young when we are physically old” (290). If the social dimension of the education Burke prescribes was negative, then its individual dimension was positive (insofar as that dimension of delight was symbolic, it wasn’t solipsistic). There was some measure of hope:
There is no tangle so hopeless that it cannot, with the symbol-using species, become the basis for a new ingenious assertion that transcends it, by the very nature of linguistic assertion. No way of life can be so wretched, corrupt, or even boring that some expert symbol-user or other can’t make it the subject matter of a good book. Wherever you might moralistically claim, “How awful!” there is the opportunity for the aesthetic to answer spiritedly, “But how delightfully awful!” (292)
Writing in his Cold War context, Burke suggested that his educational approach might cultivate the proper attitudes for people in power who work with one another in communities of nations. Today that seems a preposterously ambitious aim, one that I can only describe—with apologies to Kenneth Burke of course—as tragi-comic. In any case, we might see his essay and the pedagogy it offers as a consolation, especially for our students, who plan to enter a world that seems disturbingly impersonal to many of us, but no less confusing for any fond notions we might have that the past was somehow any less illusory. Let’s hope they can make good use of it.
 For example, see Andrew Hartman’s book excerpt at In These Times: http://inthesetimes.com/article/17962/how-austerity-killed-the-humanities
 Believe it or not, a colleague of mine (Joel Overall) who happens to be a real, live Burkean tells me that he and his people refer to Burke’s essay by the acronym.
 Kenneth Burke, “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” in Modern Philosophies of Education, ed. Nelson B. Henry (University of Chicago Press, 1955), 259-303. All succeeding references appear in parentheses.
 Here the differences between Burke’s argument and Richard Rorty’s contingency of language argument in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge UP, 1989), 3-22 are telling. While Burke admits certain pragmatic, provisional, or “Deweyite” tendencies in LAPE, because he insists that language reveal something about human nature, he’s still on the idealist side of what Rorty calls the idealist/realist “seesaw.”
 At this point, Burke speculated about the newer technologies of recording, wondering whether the ability to view sections of experiences over and over again might change his emphasis on traditional texts. To say this was prescient would be an understatement.
 Jackson Lears’ review of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep in Commonweal, while not Burkean, nonetheless makes a case against the promissory model: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/book-reviews/liberal-arts-vs-neoliberalism
 Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Viking, 1950), 107, 108, 112, 111, 113.
kur Ibid., 110. Of course, Trilling was far too discerning a critic to let pass as a form of insight the notion that the past might be a more innocent time than the present, but he believed that the Civil War and the similar observations of more than a few of Twain’s artistic contemporaries occasioned the cliché. This demonstrates Trilling’s pragmatic, historicist effort to save literature from the New Critics as well as the older historical school of thought, which sought some degree of scientific certainty: “To suppose that we can think like men of another time is as much of an illusion as to suppose that we can think in a wholly different way.” (187)
 For me anyhow, this raises the question of Burke’s influence on Ralph Ellison. At least it helps explain something of Ralph Ellison’s darkly comic genius in “The Battle Royal” scene of his masterful Invisible Man. In much the same way that the imprisoned Jim, in his eagerness for freedom, indulges Tom Sawyer’s fantasies even as they grow more baroque, the protagonist in Ellison’s novel is brutalized repeatedly by men who, in playing out their erotic fantasies upon a group of black boys, “mean to do right” by the protagonist. As their abuse heightens and becomes more and more preposterously cruel, the protagonist insists again and again that if he can only be allowed to give a speech, his persecutors will see how deserving he truly is. In other words, Ellison takes up the comedy that Twain’s readers would accept without much question in the late 19th century only to turn it on mid-20th century readers with incendiary effect. It’s as dark and as terrifying as humor can get.