Toward a Burkean Theory of Democracy and Democratic Social Change

Cate Palczewski

University of Northern Iowa

In a world where people are becoming increasingly cynical about politics and politicians, is it safe to conclude that democratic approaches to social life are doomed? In some ways, Burke's analysis of Psychoanalysia seems to point that conclusion. We search for the "curative value of a landslide" (PLF 133) almost as a form of ritual victimage whereby social sins are purified with the sacrificing of the incumbent. Yet, despite the drama of that sacrifice, very little changes:

Factions have come and gone, raging over trifles, but always the same general policies of government have been maintained. Thus, you have one-party government cunningly maintained by a paradox, a constant succession of coronations and depositions. We might sum up in this way: Revolution is avoided by making revolution the norm. The people are regularly encouraged to make palace revolution, which means that, when they get the old leader out, they merely put the same kind in his[sic] place. (PLF 134)

This description seems to indicate that, at least in this democracy as presently constructed, real change is unlikely. Superficial change replaces the need for actual change. So, how do we achieve real social change, instigated by democratic mobilization of the people?

Hope remains, as it must if we use the comic frame. So, where do I look for a criticism of present democratic practices that point to a more engaged future -- to the comics (if not the comic perspective). Just as Burke recognizes the role of the father in the electioneering of Psychoanalysia, so too does Susie Bright, self proclaimed sex-educator and author (particularly pertinent given Duncan's discussion of sex in the introduction to Permanence and Change). Engaging in the type of critical analysis that Burke calls for, Bright argues that the Republican attempts to campaign on the family values theme was not an attempt to discuss the needs of the children, but instead of the adults whom the Republicans turned into children. Recounting the words of Missouri Governor John Ashcroft, "if our children are not instilled with a moral purpose, 'they will turn to the selfish gratification of drugs, promiscuity, rioting . . . and even mindless TV'" (Sexwise 28), Bright explains, "I closed my eyes for a moment to imagine such gluttony and realized that the hedonists passing before my mind's eye were not tiny tots or even petulant teenagers, but great big grown-ups" (28). The code of politics was one where adult children needed to be controlled.

Therein may lie the diagnosis. Where politics is the battle of whom becomes father, very little role is left for a citizenry in democratic change, unless one leaves "home." So, we see the atrophy of the public sphere, and the creation of counter-publics (us young folks out on our own). Yet, this may not be as bad as one might predict. Just as the disintegration of the traditional family brings with it a host of transitional problems, so, too, does it bring with it the ability to confront the problems inherent to the traditional family and the ability to look at alternative forms of family . . . or democracy.

Rita Felski (Beyond Feminist Aesthetics) and Nancy Fraser (in Habermas and the Public Sphere) both speak to the positive aspects of the formation of counter-public spheres, places where traditional validity claims may be questioned, where one may go for support and energy, where alternative vocabularies germinate, and where challenges to the dominant public may originate. As Fraser argues, in a system where the public sphere is often monological (as in Psychoanalysia), it is positive that multiple counterpublics evolve:

insofar as these counterpublics emerge in response to exclusions within dominant publics, they help expand discursive space. In principle, assumptions that were previously exempt from contestation will now have to be publicly argued out. In general, the proliferation of subaltern counterpublics means a widening of discursive contestation, and that is a good thing in stratified societies. (124)

However, given that the counterpublics are formed on the basis of a common identity, they may sow the seeds of their own difficulties. How does one move from the counterpublic to the public (if that is, indeed, the goal), presenting one's position in a way that both communicates to the public while maintaining the authenticity of the message. If the counterpublic split from the public because it was not serving its interests, how does the counterpublic translate its interests in terms intelligible to the dominant public, a move necessary given:

Communication cannot be satisfactory unless the matter discussed bears in come notable respect upon the interests of the auditor. Without the assistance of this factor, the entire paraphernalia of appeal - comprehensiveness, conciseness, cogency, construction, pliancy, and all the rest ad lib. - are wasted. (P&C 37.

Burke points to the process of shifting interpretation as the goal, when "we invent new terms, or apply our old vocabulary in new ways, attempting to socialize our position by so manipulating the linguistic equipment of our group that our particular additions or alterations can be shown to fit into the old texture" (P&C 36). This may be the way to democratic change, through communication. Very grass roots.

So, the vision of discourse in democracy that I found in Burke was not the most expansive, given that democracy, as Burke saw it function, was in a state of disrepair. Whether it be Psychoanalysia, or the description of democracy contained in Counter-Statement, whereby democracy is "a system of government based upon the fear that central authority becomes bad authority -- democracy, organized distrust, 'protest made easy,' a babble of discordant voices, a colossal getting in one's own way. . ." (114), discourse seemed to either be hollow ("Choose Blott for father-symbol" or "Make Bloop the rejected father'), or empty ("babble"). Yet, this need not necessarily be the case. While the electoral and governing processes may be troubled, "a society is sound only if it can prosper on its vices, since virtues are by very definition rare and exceptional" (CS 114) (the above-mentioned Susie "Sexpert" Bright would be happy to hear this). So, what vices are there? The fragmenting of the public, which may be positively read as the creation of multiple, creative counterpublics?

Which brings me to the second discussion question: Which sections are most useful in characterizing a Burkean perspective on democracy and on social change? While Duncan, in his introduction to P&C, focuses on the tragic (help me out on this seminar) motives of guilt, redemption, hierarchy, and victimage, I would like to make more of a foray into the comic frame. Now, while my guess is that these four motives are not necessarily tragic, they seem very linked to it. For quick review, the tragic frame of acceptance admonished one to "'resign' himself[sic] to a sense of his limitations" while the comic "shifts from crime to stupidity" (ATH 41). For Burke, the comic frame is the most hopeful for "[t]he progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy" (41). Within the comic frame is the recognition that change is possible, whereas in the tragic frame, more is determined by forces outside of one's control.

I see the link to the tragic frame with the focus on villains, instead of fools, and with my own assumption that guilt and victimage are best served by those who are villains, and not those who are fools. Sacrificing a fool only sacrifices a fool, not an intentional doer of evil. Fools are guilty only of stupidity, not intentional violation of the order. Also, when using the comic frame, whereby we become students of ourselves, it is possible for us to "'transcend' occasions when [we] have been tricked or cheated, since [we] can readily put such discouragements in [our] 'assets' column, under the head of 'experience'" (ATH 171) and, hence, feel little need to seek expiation for sins. If we view acts as learning situations, not situations needing correction by assignation of guilt and the meting our of punishment, the role of sacrifice is altered.

Therein also lies the place for the critic. "In sum, the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting. Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness. One would 'transcend' [one's self] by noting [one's] own foibles" (171). Two questions arise for me out of this: If we do adopt the comic frame, what then happens to the four motives? And, is Burke's distinction between humor and the comic tenable for counter-publics?

Taking the second question first, if one approaches humor from the perspective of a dispossessed group. If the function of a frame is to provide a well-rounded frame of acceptance for the gauging of situations, if one is in a position where well-roundedness is impossible and acceptance inadvisable, then humor may be the only way to achieve the comic goal of accurately gauging a situation. If the world is out of balance, if the world is not well-rounded, then humor may be the only way to accurately gauge a situation. If the world is grotesque, burlesque and a living breathing satire, then humor presented within a comic frame seems to be the corrective.

As for the role of guilt in the comic frame, this requires a walk through the means by which our sins can be cleansed, or how we remove guilt because some ideal order has been violated. Multiple forms of sacrifice exist (all of which, I would argue, are inappropriate if one is to develop a robust public dialogue within itself and with counter-publics).

First, one may use a scapegoat, "a sacrificial receptacle for the ritual unburdening of one's sins" (P&C 16). This mechanism assumes that one's sins are transferable, that while some members of the group's sins have infected the entire group, only one scapegoat need be sacrificed to purify the sins of all. This approach leans toward the tragic, for it does not call for one to recognize his or her own limits. It does not force critical reflection, but, instead allows, for the transference of blame to another. Insofar as this form is an instance of trained incapacity (17), it is not a form useful for the development of democratic change (it thwarts change).

Second, one may seek redemption through victimage, whereby "absolute guilt, matched by a principle that is designed for the corresponding absolute cancellation of such guilt" is achieved through a sacrificial offering (284). Again, internal change is not called for. Instead, a simple penance atones.

Perhaps more in line with the critical self-reflection called for in the comic frame is mortification, whereby one scrupulously and deliberately clamps limitations upon one's self (289). Yet, these limits imply that the motivations for sin continue, which need not be the case if critical self-reflection has actually altered one's motives.

So, where does this leave me? Social change is difficult, particularly for marginalized groups. However, if we expand our concept of the public, and what constitutes change, much more exists about which to be hopeful. For, within the counter-publics, the type of critical self-reflection called for in the comic occurs. Instead of viewing each other, or politicians as evil, we can view them as mistaken. The tenor of public discourse moves away from the adversarial (forensic) determination of guilt and focuses more on how each of us participates in the maintenance of a system that is foolish. Instead of seeking to transfer sins to others in order to cleanse ourselves, we focus more on the determination of our own follies, identifying with each other not on the basis of a common enemy, but on the basis of common mistakes.

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