A Burkean Vision of Democracy

Dan Buehler

University of Maryland

For purposes of orientation, our seminar leaders suggest we view democracy as the "broad participation in the making of public life." Working with this definition, a question posed by our seminar leaders asks whether Burke has a vision of discourse in democracy and if so, what it may look like? My brief response addresses this question, albeit metaphorically. Metaphors, as Burke notes, are perspectives; they are tools for seeing things in terms of something else. In addition, by serving as the building blocks of meaning, metaphors can also be foundational. Given that metaphorical usage is a fundamental way in which we make sense of life, it seems wise to select a metaphor that Burke employs when he endeavors to govern our thoughts in understanding the symbolic drama of life. This is not to imply that Burke's metaphor is his form of democracy, although it might well be, but simply a perspective on discourse in democracy.

Undoubtedly, several metaphorical visions of a Burkean democracy can be excavated from Burke's tomb of works. For a point of departure, I offer his parlor scene as a metaphor for democracy. Note 1 Briefly, the parlor event entails an ongoing heated discussion. We each come to the conversation first as mere observers. Later, after picking up the tenor of the interaction, we slip into the foray, rhetorically mixing it up with other participants. Eventually, we disengage from the dialogue, knowing only that the talk will continue despite our absence. Such is the drama of life--an ongoing conversation that exists so long as meaningful symbolic exchanges persist.

Burke's parlor scene is an intriguing metaphor for democracy. On the surface, the parlor episode reveals nothing on whether the conversation is stimulating and exciting or frustrating and unproductive--it simply is heated. Also, it presents a singular form for democracy when in fact multiple forms arguably flourish. In any case, democratic life is conversation--an end in itself. One need only to participate to be democratically involved. However, democracy must entail more than mere verbal entanglement; otherwise, Nightline, Meet the Press, Town Hall Meetings, and similar programs would be producing virtuous forms of democracy. Indeed, making public life is also contingent on participants' frames of acceptance and the possibility of rhetorical coherency among disparate forms of democracy. I will now explore these elements as they relate to the parlor metaphor.

A participant's "frame of acceptance" may (in)directly influence the nature of the parlor conversation. According to the metaphor, access to the conversation is dependent on a participant invoking a frame that contains some level of symbolic authority with other participants. Burke writes, the materials for life, the things we make democracy with come from the conversation itself. Note 2 Hence, each interlocutor enters the parlor and embraces an organized system of meanings by which s/he can gauge the historical situation and adopt a role with relation to it. Note 3 Upon entering the parlor, one contemplates which frame(s) to enact so as to have an influence on the conversation's tempo. What the parlor metaphor fails to illuminate is the existing levels of symbolic authority across frames. Who is allowed to speak is determined by whether an employed frame is legitimated or not. In part, issues of legitimation are settled by contextual factors. What remains uncertain, however, is how new frames (or voices) are brought to bear on pre-existing conversations.

In essence, what is required to constitute a new rhetorical frame? This question is pertinent, I believe, in determining how the current form of democracy can be improved upon. If the frames from which we make democracy are contained in the conversation, then we ought to determine if the materials we have inherited no longer enable us to effectively negotiate the realities the shape our social existence. As long as our democracy has endured, presumably so have some of the frames which comprise it. However, the exploitation of these frames can become "bureaucratized," so well organized that they no longer are able to face new crises. While an established frame still focuses on certain features of life, Burke argues, by its "very thoroughness it obscures the perception of new factors that are of critical importance." Thus, when new interpretive frames are not provided, "we get decadence, neurosis, [and] anger" laments Burke. Note 4

Assuming the only thing constant is change, it seems valuable to discover how old frames manage to endure changing socio-political contexts. More importantly, in their survival, do these frames still equip us with the rhetorical tools to effectively enact meaningful forms of democracy? If not, how can new frames be integrated into a conversation that is historically entrenched with antiquated systems of organization? As a metaphor, the parlor episode fails to reveal how change, both social and rhetorical, occurs within a particular form of democracy. Nonetheless, Burke provides some resources that enable critics to talk about innovative social change. A few that quickly come to mind include the comic corrective, perspective by incongruity, and his discussion on irony.

Cognizant of the parlor metaphor's limitations, what remains to be reconciled is the theorizing of rhetorical coherency among different forms of democracies. This is critical if cacophony is to be avoided. Perhaps Burke's anatomies of definitions offers an explanation of rhetorical coherency among pluralistic democratic forms. Note 5 Specifically, Burke identifies two parts to definition: contextual and familial. Contextual definition which might also be called "positional," "geometrical," or "definitions by location" locates and demarcates a phenomenon in relation to its context. Note 6 Familial definition focuses on the "biological descent" of a word, its various mutations, all differently nuanced yet "tribally" linked by ancestral ties. The anatomies of definition--contextual and familial--theoretically establishes a nexus among disparate rhetorics or in our case, amid democracies. Although the nature of a conversation is determined, in part, by its context, its coherency with other conversations are made possible by familial relationships among symbols. Hence, while different forms of democracy are rhetorically manifested across contexts, they are inherently of the same substance and thus coherent by virtue of their shared characteristic take on the familial form called "democracy."

Assuming that multiple forms of democracy exist, Burke's section on anatomies of definition describes how these forms manage to co-mingle. In so doing, Burkean critics have space from which they can evince (dis)connections amongst various forms of democracies and, hopefully, learn why certain rhetorics fail and others succeed when making public life amid different entities.

In the end, one must be cautious of the metaphor invoked when attempting to characterize democracy. As a perspective, the parlor is only one of several that Burke makes available. Although incomplete, the parlor scene does provide a venue into the discussion of discourse in democracy. Instead of being foundation, the metaphor (as well as other possible candidates) is used compositionally, a building block for developing a lucid understanding of a Burkean democracy.

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1. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973) 110-111.

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2. Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form, 111.

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3. Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) 5.

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4. Burke, Attitudes Toward History, 27.

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5. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969) 21-33.

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6. Burke, A Grammar of Motives, 26.

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