Thursday, April 11, 2013

Reading the Dissoi Logoi with Kenneth Burke

             Our course readings have ended with Kenneth Burke but his contributions to rhetoric constitute a new beginning for the field. Burke contributes not a reformulation, dismissal, or alteration to the classical canons, which the majority of our theorists have concerned themselves with, but an entirely original theory which answers the basic questions of the discipline in a new way. In many ways, ending with Burke returns us to the questions that we first posed when we read the Dissoi Logoi at the beginning of the semester, where we considered not just what rhetoric is “man” as a category and its relationship to language.
            The Dissoi Logoi begins with the observation that what is good for one person may be bad for another, that what one calls “seemly” another calls “shameful” (B/H 49). Burke begins with this same observation: that the words we use for values are as ambiguous as the values themselves, and that people build entire systems of words and ideologies out of ambiguous value judgments. In the same vein, the Dissoi Logoi does not fight the ambiguity of language, but notes that we make meaning out of it, so much that “the same statement is false when the false is present to it, and true when the true is present to it” (52). Similarly, Burke does not consider ambiguity one of the problems of language, as Aristotle, Locke, Bacon, and most of the theorists we have considered do, but finds in the ambiguity of language fist observations of his theory. In a way, then, we ended with Burke’s “terministic screens,” but we also began with it.
            Positioning Burke at the end of the syllabus, then, makes sense because it returns us to the questions and the texts that started our semester. In terms of historiography, returning to these questions helps us to think of the history of the discipline in non-linear terms, even disrupting the idea of a “beginning” or an “end.” It also helps us to view the development of the field as dynamic and developing, especially when we consider how much Burke departs from the other theorists we have considered.
Our positioning of Burke could be criticized on some of these same grounds, though. In a course which has dealt so much with theorists that have more or less agreed about whether ambiguity in language is a problem, Burke could seem tacked on, especially at the end. Given that the semester is almost over, we do not have time to consider for more than a couple of hours the questions that he raises, his contributions, and the different perspective on basic questions of language that he brings to the field. We pose these questions only to run out of time to discuss them.
I think the course was ultimately well-served, though, by the way Burke has been positioned. I think this was helped by beginning the course with the Dissoi Logoi, because I think it helps us to think of Burke as both an end and a return to the beginning of the course. And in returning to these questions with the knowledge of what we have done, our own reflection on how we have developed as historians of rhetoric is made richer.

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