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  • “As Usual I Fell on the Bias”: Kenneth Burke’s Situated Dialectic
  • M. Elizabeth Weiser

In a 1938 letter to his childhood friend Matthew Josephson, Kenneth Burke commented on the new world he had entered by agreeing to lecture in the University of Chicago’s Humanities College that summer: “The burning issue here is not between Stalinists and Trotskyites, but between Platonists and Aristotelians—and thence, to complicate the symmetry, between Aristotelians and the Social Sciences. As usual, I fell on the bias across the controversies ” (8/5/1938, KBP, emphasis mine). 1 As we know, this propensity to situate his arguments across seeming dichotomies marks Burke’s work. Pragmatists and idealists; Marxists and esthetes; urban radicals and agrarian conservatives; psychological and sociological theorists: Burke would continuously take a position that fell, as he put it, on the bias—not simply in the middle, not finding some common ground between them in a weak compromise, but cutting across their positions, envisioning an alternative that was parts of both as well as new, Burkean ideas.

Burke scholar Robert Wess has commented that he “would like to see more of . . . an attempt to follow Burke’s practice of situating his thought (e.g., the ‘purification of war’ as an alternative to ‘fanaticism’ at one extreme and ‘dissipation’ at the other)”—a “situating,” he added, that places Burke within the intellectual debates of his time (2005). Wess is of course referring here to Burke’s situational stance in A Grammar of Motives, his [End Page 134] dramatistic formula ad bellum purificandum. How does Burke’s position across the philosophical debates of his time influence his conception of dramatism? Today we use the theory as a universal lens through which to examine any rhetorical situation—from Aristotle to jazz to the latest presidential debate—but in this article, I would like to explore how falling on the bias across fanaticism and dissipation, as Burke named his dramatistic situating during its development in World War II, shaped the concrete particularities of this universal theory. 2 Situating Burke’s dramatism within the conversational parlor of its contemporaneous debates sheds new light on just how Burke imagined that it would lead to the “purification of war.” Bryan Crable recently argued that there are two approaches to Burkean scholarship—the historical and the universal—and it is the latter, “scholarship that promotes the relevance of Burke’s texts for the study of contemporary rhetoric and social change,” that assumes that “Burkean scholarship matters, there is something at stake in our readings of Burke” (2003, 118, emphasis Crable’s). I believe that historical scholarship also has something at stake. Without the ability to converse with modern-day concerns, as Crable rightly notes, dramatism would be only a dated anachronism. However, without a fully engaged conversation—be it with Burke or any other theorist—it is difficult to avoid a fragmented appropriation of ideas that merely supports but does not expand our own perspectives. Dramatism historicized, or what I call in my book on this topic dramatism rhetoricized, becomes a much more strongly felt call for engaged intellectual activism of a particularly ambiguous sort, a celebration of multiple perspectives of a kind that often makes the most engaged among us uncomfortable, as well as a celebration of action now in a way that makes the most intellectual equally uncomfortable. It is this particular response to war that falling on the bias facilitates—or demands—and thus exploring the historical circumstances of bias-falling dramatism serves as a model for the exploration of other theories’ origins. 3

Scholars have long noted Burke’s tendency to bridge debates as a rhetorical approach to oppositions. Wess, for instance, begins his examination of Burke’s place within constructionist theory by situating Burke’s “constitutionalizing” in the 1940s in opposition to the extremes of Enlightenment science and Romantic aesthetics, noting that in Burke, “trust is placed in the interaction among discourses more than in single discourses, the basis of the trust being neither enlightenment certainty nor romantic authenticity but rhetorical sayability” (1996, 4). Paul Jay ( Contingency Blues ) likewise discusses Burke’s development in the 1930s of a poetic mode [End Page 135] of critical writing...


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