"Kenneth Burke’s ‘Attitude’ at the Crossroads of Rhetorical and Cultural Studies," by Sarah Mahan-Hays & Roger C. Aden


Sarah Mahan-Hays and Roger C. Aden. "Kenneth Burke’s ‘Attitude’ at the Crossroads of Rhetorical and Cultural Studies: A Proposal and Case Study Illustration." Western Journal of Communication 67 (Winter 2003): 32–55.

Reviewed by Jeff Bennett, Department of Communication, Denison University

Kenneth Burke’s discussion of "trained incapacity" in Permanence and Change emphasizes the limitations created by people’s abilities. He explains that the intellectual equipment enabling thought can subtly conspire against those who do not reflect on their adopted frames of reference, inhibiting ideas that might enrich their lives. It is no small irony then that Burke’s many writings are often utilized in pedagogy and research as a systematic approach to criticism, not as a rhetorical heuristic for inspiring invention. Time and again rhetorical scholars have witnessed the reduction of Burkean criticism to a "method" rather than a critical attitude that is productive only insofar as it exists in articulation with complex cultural texts.

Sarah Mahan-Hays and Roger Aden in "Kenneth Burke’s ‘Attitude’ at the Crossroads of Rhetorical and Cultural Studies: A Proposal and Case Study Illustration" offer readers an antidote to this predicament. They position Burkean criticism not as an instrument for cleaving rhetorical figurines, but instead as an "attitude" for struggling with complex communicative phenomena. Mahan-Hays and Aden employ Burke’s notions of representative anecdote, literature as equipment for living, and frames of acceptance/rejection/transition "to emphasize how Burke’s writings about ‘attitude’ provide a means of synthesizing some of his disparate ideas into a holistic kind of Burkean criticism" (33). The authors acknowledge the complications inherent in defining the word "attitude," but suggest that it is best summed up as "a strategy of interpretation and thus more of a cognitive activity that is then reflected in one’s symbol use" (35).

Situating Burke as a "critical attitude" merits endorsement. It is a useful vehicle for maintaining the late theorist’s relevance in communication studies and for initiating important conversations about Burke in other fields of inquiry. Mahan-Hays and Aden are especially invested in furthering the relationship that exists between communication scholars and the eclectic discipline of cultural studies, which continues to gain capital in our departments, journals, and classrooms. The authors advance their argument by exploring what Burkean criticism might look like in cultural studies, putting their heuristic into dialogue with fan reactions to the cable television program Talk Soup. In doing so, they illustrate how a Burkean approach stressing critical attitudes can help explain issues of popular culture, consumption, and the "everyday."

Undoubtedly, there will be skeptics who do not see the connection between some of Burke’s more modernist leanings and the fragmented multiplicity of cultural studies. However, from a Burkean perspective, this seeming contradiction is the very power inherent in such conversations. Blending the languages of rhetoric and cultural studies has unlimited potential when one considers the endless possibilities in activism, pedagogy, and research (and not necessarily as discrete units). After all, both rhetorical and cultural studies are concerned with notions of community—not just the possibilities provided by norms but also the possibilities marginalized by them. Each is devoted to critiques of cultural logics, the particulars of context, and the idea that reality is mediated by performative iterations of language. At the same time, there are many differences to be discerned among these disciplines, and Mahan-Hays and Aden offer an opportunity to think through these continually evolving interchanges. For instance, one might ponder how Burke’s critical project informs seemingly unrelated genres of scholarship such as ethnography or theories of the body. Conversely, one might consider how critical race theory or feminist theory offers a corrective to Burke, not just in terms of power and identity, but recalcitrance and casuistic stretching.

Proposing such intersections is not without precedent. There are traces of Burke’s influence scattered throughout strands of cultural theory. One such example is in anthropologist Ester Newton’s groundbreaking work on "camp" aesthetics. Although queer theorists might be expected to turn to Michel Foucault or Judith Butler before casting a glance at Burke, Newton exhibits how his scholarship can be useful for those who are investigating the attitudinal relationship between marginalized audiences and popular texts. She explains that camp is a "strategy for a situation," not a phenomena that can be methodologically explained. Borrowing in part from Burke’s litany of terms, she asserts that the content of camp is incongruity, the style is theatrical, and the strategy is comic. In Newton’s writings one finds a critical attitude expressed through a critique which might be called Burkean, not an over-reliance on Burkean concepts for the sake of theory building.

Michel de Certeau reminds us that just because a population does not control the production of cultural texts does not mean they cannot control the ways in which it is consumed. Using Burke as a conceptual guide, criticism might be approached in a similar manner. One can broach the strictures and prospects of language with a keen eye towards creating new frames of being. By joining Burke’s conceptual attitude with the vocabularies of cultural studies, Mahan-Hays and Aden offer one path for entering the grand debates of the humanities, advancing a message that is steeped in both theory and praxis without oversimplifying the complex tasks confronted by rhetorical and cultural scholars.