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Richard L. W.

Clarke LITS3301 Notes 08B

KENNETH BURKE, LITERATURE AS EQUIPMENT FOR LIVING (1938)


Burke, Kenneth. "Literature as Equipment for Living." Direction 1 (1938): 10-13. Rpt. in
The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
UP, 1941. Rpt. New York: Vintage, 1957. 253-262.
Here, Burke offers what he terms a sociological criticism of literature (253) and states his
intention to suggest what partially new elements or emphasis . . . should be added to this
old approach (253) by beginning with a discussion of proverbs (253).
I
Here, Burke contends that an examination of random specimens in The Oxford Dictionary
of English Proverbs indicated no pure literature here. Everything is medicine. Proverbs
are designed for consolation of vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling
(253). Some proverbs name typical, recurrent situations. That is, people find a certain
social relationship recurring so frequently they must have a word for it (253), much like
the Eskimos have special names for many different kinds of snow (fifteen, I remember
rightly) because variations in the quality of snow greatly affect their living. Hence, they
must size up snow much more accurately than we do (253). This is also true of social
phenomena. Social structures give rise to type situations, subtle subdivisions of the
relationships involved in competitive and cooperative acts (253) which proverbs seek to
track, in more or less homey and picturesque ways (253). Such naming is done not for
the sheer glory of the thing, but because of its bearing upon human welfare (253). In the
same way that a different name for snow implies a different kind of hunt (253), the
names for typical, recurrent social situations are not developed out of disinterested
curiosity, but because the names imply a command (what to expect, what to look out for
(254). Accordingly, some proverbs are designed for consolation (254), others for
vengeance (254), while others have to do with foretelling (254), including those
recipes for wise living, sometimes moral, sometimes technical (255). Burke admits that
there are other ways in which the proverbs could be classified (255), but the point of
issue is not to find categories that place the proverbs once and for all (255) but rather to
suggest categories that suggest their active nature. Here is no realism for its own sake.
Here is realism for promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling, instruction,
charting, all for the direct bearing that such acts have upon matters of welfare (255).
II
Burke seeks to extend such analysis of proverbs to encompass the whole field of
literature (255), arguing that the most complex and sophisticated works of art (256)
should be considered somewhat as proverbs writ large (256). This would help us
discover important facts about literary organisation (thus satisfying the requirements of
technical criticism (256); this kind of observation from this perspective should apply
beyond literature to life in general (256), thus helping to take literature out of its
separate bin and give it a place in a general sociological picture (256). Hence, Burke
contends,
[p]roverbs are strategies for dealing with situations. In so far as situations
are typical and recurrent in a given social structure, people develop names
for them and strategies for handling them. Another name for strategies
might be attitudes. (256)

Richard L. W. Clarke LITS3301 Notes 08B

The apparent contradictions (256) signalled by the existence of contrary proverbs


(256) (e.g. Repentance comes too late [256] as opposed to Never too late to mend
[256]), Burke argues, depend upon differences in attitude, involving a correspondingly
different choice of strategy (256). Burke considers the alternative term (256),
method (256), for strategy, but contends that if strategy errs in suggesting to some
people an overly conscious procedure, method errs in suggesting an overly methodical
one (256). He then considers several different dictionary definitions of the term
strategy, all of which circle around directing a military campaign. Burke concludes that
surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in
complex civilisations, could be considered as designed to organise and
command the army of ones thoughts and images, and to so organise them
that one imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for
fighting preferred by oneself. One seeks to direct the larger movements
and operations in ones campaign of living. One manoeuvres, and the
manoeuvring is an art. (257)
The final results (257), Burke contends, are ones strategy (257) which is designed to
ensure
one cant lose. One tries to change the rules of the game until they fit his
own necessities. Does the artist encounter disaster? He will make capital
of it. If one is a victim of competition, . . . one can by the solace and
vengeance of art convert this very liability into an asset. One tries to fight
on his own terms developing a strategy for imposing the proper time, place,
and conditions. (257)
At the same time, however, one must be realistic (257) in developing a strategy:
One must size things up properly. One cannot accurately know how things
will be, what is promising and what is menacing, unless he accurately knows
how things are. So the wise strategist will not be content with strategies of
merely a self-gratifying sort. . . . He will not too eagerly read into a sene
an attitude that is irrelevant to it. He wont sit on the side of an active
volcano and see it as a dormant plain. (257-258)
Sadly, though, in Burkes view, especially in the case of inspirational literature
(258), authors often do precisely this, which is a strategy for easy consolation (258) and
which thereby fills a need (258). But Burke cautions that such books (e.g. on success
[258]) serve a purpose: the reading of a book on the attaining of success is in itself the
symbolic attainment of that success. It is while they read that these readers are
succeeding (258), that is, living in the aura of success (258) rather than applying the
books recipes (258). On the other hand, an author may remain realistic, avoiding too
easy a form of solace (258), but he may forget that realism is an aspect of foretelling, he
may take it as an end in itself (258) because of an ill-digested philosophy of science,
leading him mistakenly to assume that relentless naturalistic truthfulness is a proper end
in itself (258) and/or a competitive desire to outstrip other writers by being more
realistic than they (258) that is validated via a kind of academicism (258) in the form
of tests of competition internal to the book trade (258). Burke terms the former
naturalism (258) and the latter [r]ealism (258), arguing that as a way of sizing things
up, the naturalistic tradition tends to become as inaccurate as the inspirational strategy,
though at the opposite extreme (259).
Burke argues that a
work like Madame Bovary . . . is a the strategic naming of a situation. It
singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our
social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutatis mutandis, for people to

Richard L. W. Clarke LITS3301 Notes 08B

need a word for it and to adopt an attitude towards it. Each work of art is
the addition of a word to an informal dictionary. . . . (259)
Referring to the splendid (259) study entitled The American Language by H. L. Mencken
by way of illustration, Burke argues that it was really written by millions of Americans, and
Mencken was merely the amanuensis who took it down from their dictation. .
. . He gets the royalties, but the job was done by a collectivity. As you read
that book, you see a people who were up aqainst a new set of typical
recurrent situations, situations typical of their business, their politics, their
criminal organisations, their sports. Either there were no words for these in
standard English, or people didnt know them, or they didnt sound right. So
a new vocabulary arose, to give us a word for it. . . . American slang was
not developed out of some exceptional gift. It was developed out of the fact
that new typical situations had arisen and people needed names for them.
They had to size things up. They had to console and strike, to promise and
admonish. They had to describe for purposes of forecasting. And slang was
the result. It is, by this analysis, simply proverbs not so named, a kind of
folk criticism. (259)
III
Burke here turns his attention to the question of [w]ith what . . . would sociological
criticism along these lines be concerned (260). The answer: it would seek to codify the
various strategies which artists have developed with relation to the naming of situations
(260). Much of this would even be timeless, for many of the typical, recurrent
situations are not peculiar to our own civilisation (260). The situations and strategies
framed in Aesops fables . . . apply to human relations now just as fully as they applied in
ancient Greece. They are, like philosophy, sufficiently generalised to extend far beyond
the particular combination of events named by them in any one instance (260). They
name an essence. Or we could say that they are on a high level of abstraction (260)
because they aim to discern the general behind the particular (260). This is a variant
of Spenglers notion of the contemporaneous. By contemporaneity he meant
corresponding stages of different cultures (260), according to which if modern New York
is much like decadent Rome, then we are contemporaneous with decadent Rome (260).
It is in this sense that situations are timeless, non-historical, contemporaneous (260).
A given human relationship may be at one time named in terms of foxes and lions (260)
or, as it might today, be named in terms of salesmanship, advertising, the tactics of
politicians, etc. (260), but beneath the change in particulars, we may often discern the
naming of the one situation (260).
Therefore, sociological criticism . . . would seek to assemble and codify this lore
(260), seeing connections between disparate forms such as an abstruse work of
philosophy (261) and a dirty joke (261), and thereby grouping by situation and
showing the range of possible particularisations (261): First genus, then differentia. The
strategy in common is the genus. The range or scale or spectrum of particularisations is
the differentia (261). Hence, burke admits, the presence of allegedly intuitive leaps
(261) in his own work that are, he insists, not leaps at all. They are classifications,
groupings, made on the basis of some strategic element common to the items grouped
(261). This method gives, he argues, definite insight into the organisation of literary
works; and it automatically breaks down the barriers erected about literature as a
specialised pursuit (261). There are many ways academically-speaking to classify
literature but sociological criticism has the effect of binding works of art . . . to social

Richard L. W. Clarke LITS3301 Notes 08B

situations outside of art (261) in a way that would violate current pieties, break down
current categories (262). These categories would like on the bias across the categories
of modern specialisation (262) and outrage . . . those persons who take the division of
faculties in our universities to be an exact replica of the way in which God himself divided
up the universe (262). This is what Burke terms not the Philosophy of Being (262) but
the Philosophy of the Bin (262) which is typical (262) of contemporary specialisation
(262): [e]ach of these mental localities has had its own peculiar way of life, its own
values, even its own special idiom for seeing, thinking, and proving (262). A sociological
criticism should attempt to provide a reintegrative point of view, a broader empire of
investigation encompassing the lot (262).
Burke concludes that works of art (262) should be thought of as strategies for
selecting enemies and allies, for socialising losses, for warding off evil eye, for purification,
propitiation, and desanctification, consolation and vengeance, admonition and exhortation,
implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another (262). Art forms like tragedy
or comedy or satire would be treated as equipments for living, that size up situations in
various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes (262). The typical
ingredients of such forms would be sought. Their relation to typical situations would be
stressed. Their comparative values would be considered, with the intention of formulating
a strategy of strategies, the over-all strategy obtained by inspection of the lot (262).