Reading Burke, Thinking about Eco-criticism
The first two chapters of Blakesley’s The Elements of Dramatism are my first encounter with the work of David Burke. Although I certainly do not feel qualified, after reading only two chapters written about Burke’s work by another author to comment on Burkean thought as a whole, I do foresee limitations of Burke’s approach in regard to my own creative and scholarly pursuits. That said, I also see the depth of thought and insight in Burke that I find admirable, worthwhile, and also fairly difficult to grasp in a single read through. I’ll try to clarify some of my initial concerns here first and then explain what I appreciate and identify with in Burke’s line of thinking as presented by Blakesley in the first two chapters of his book.
The possible limitations that I foresee in Burke’s work arise because of the types of symbols or symbols systems he is concerned with in A Grammar of Motives. For although Burke states that “All Living Things Are Critics” a phrase that suggests an all-inclusiveness to his approach, it seems to me that the emphasis in his work (and in all probability its only practical application) is upon very highly developed symbol systems. In other words, the heightened capacity for abstract thought that, according to Walter Ong, accompanies literacy seems in Burke (at least “in Burke” as his ideas are represented in the first two chapters of Blakesley’s work) to exist as the unquestioned and unchallenged situation for critical discussion. The ubiquity of cultural values from highly literate culture in the world today makes the emphasis in Burke upon highly developed systems of symbols almost forgivable. It certainly makes this emphasis understandable, and the critical tools gained from such an approach undeniably useful. Nevertheless, the importance of symbols in Burke assumes that the symbols under discussion are recognizable and comprehensible to those concerned. Inasmuch as this is true, a Burkean approach strikes me as wholly anthropocentric and even more than that centered on literate civilization to the exclusion of non-literate, oral traditions.
That said, Burke has already proved the validity of his approach within a complex, highly literate situation. His rhetorical analysis of Mein Kampf is chillingly astute, even vaguely prophetic, as Blakesley suggests. The “five keys of dramatism” and the four types of form of which Burke conceived strike me as valuable tools of critical analysis for works produced within a literate society. It will require further reading and reflection to comprehend the degree to which Burkes approach is compatible with an eco-critical approach, and I shall withhold further comment for now.