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The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke. Studies in Rhetoric/Communication. Ross Wolin. Series ed. Thomas W. Benson. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. xviii + 256. $34.95, cloth.
Ross Wolin's The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke offers its readers an interesting mix of intellectual history and conceptual explication, along with an element of biography, which Wolin performs in an effort to trace the movements of Burke's thought as it developed over time within particular socio-political circumstances. The book is divided into three parts, each corresponding to Wolin's three-part division of Burke's intellectual [End Page 172] career. Part I, "Towards a Better Life through Art, Criticism and Politics," begins with a chapter on Burke's formation as a critic in the bohemian, avant-garde culture of post-World War I Greenwich Village. Wolin offers an account of how the dynamics of this social milieu prompted Burke to incorporate politics into his already established aesthetic interests, and of this fusion's manifestation in left-leaning periodicals of the time. While some might be tempted to see this first chapter as having limited value in comparison to Jack Selzer's richly detailed Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village : Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-1931, it should be noted that Wolin does a fine job of helping his readers—in chapter one and those which follow—to understand explicitly how specific contexts shaped Burke's ideas and his rhetoric (something that Selzer's book does not do). Wolin is particularly adept at showing how, for Burke, there is an inextricable link between aesthetics, rhetoric, politics, and social life in general. This aesthetic-rhetorical connection to politics and life, argues Wolin, is key to understanding all of Burke's work. According to Wolin, equally important is how this connection informed the essays that comprised Burke's Counter-Statement, which Wolin sees as the seed from which all of Burke's theoretical and critical writings grew. For Wolin, to understand Burke one must understand Counter-Statement, and understand it within the historical circumstances that prompted and shaped its concepts and their rhetorical presentation.
Chapter two is thus devoted to a discussion of the significance of Counter-Statement within Burke's oeuvre. It is in Counter-Statement, Wolin contends, that one can discern not only the fundaments of Burke's later work but also the "Critics Credo" that organized Burke's rhetorical efforts from Permanence and Change to The Rhetoric of Religion. Wolin's attempt to demonstrate the operation of this credo in all of Burke's books as an organizing principle pushes the limits of credulity at times, but readers should not let this obscure the insight Wolin offers us into Burke's responses to and interventions in early twentieth-century intellectual culture. Chapters three, four, and five comprise Part II of Wolin's book, "The Tactics of Conflict and Cooperation," which discusses in succession the three books that followed Counter-Statement chronologically: Permanence and Change, Attitudes Towards History, and The Philosophy of Literary Form. In these chapters, Wolin makes numerous interesting and novel points about Burke's thought. In the chapter on Permanence and Change, for example, Wolin highlights the conception of ethics implicit in that work, one that has its roots in poetics (particularly tragedy) and which refuses "to supplant traditional [End Page 173] ethics with another system [that is] equally fixed" (77). Although he does not state this, implicit in Wolin's reading is the suggestion that within Burke's work lies an alternative to the neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics and Habermasian universal pragmatics so many rhetorical scholars seem to embrace when theorizing a rhetorical ethics. (A "dramatistic" ethics of discourse and public life is, I think, an untapped potential of Burke's work.) Part III, "The Tactics of Motivation," offers similarly insightful and contextualized readings of A Grammar of Motives, A Rhetoric of Motives, The Rhetoric of Religion, and Language as Symbolic Action. Particularly interesting is Wolin's discussion in chapter seven of the importance of style...