"The 'single song of one poet'"

Paul B. Stewart

The fourth triennial Conference of the Burke Society

Toward a Burkean Theory of Democracy and Democratic Change

May 1996

Burke, like so many other critical theorists in the 20th century, sees an atrophied public democracy in America. The question at hand is, however, is he eternally pessimistic? Is there a solution in the Burkean system that provides us with an escape from the perpetual scapegoating of our guilt; a step out of the endless loop? I believe that Burke (and now we have the sad luxury of second-guessing him) and the Burkean system, while providing "correctives," provides no ultimate cause for optimism (and I think Burke would concede as much). I would like to discuss one of those corrective solutions and demonstrate why, ultimately, the solution proves untenable.

Burke's conceptualization of democratic discourse must be ascertained indirectly. While he provides no Habermasian ideal for which to strive, and though his descriptions of the increasingly massified public are not as fully developed as Ellul's, Burke does suggest one. The bane of participatory democracy is massification and the ultimate source of massification is science, the third of the "rationalizations of history" -- characterized by "the attempt to control for our purposes the forces of technology, or machinery." The consequence? Burke points to the resultant "break-down" and "psychoses" in a variety of places, including public discourse. He talks about the compartmentalization of occupational diversity leading to "the doctor's point of view, as distinct from the lawyer's, the chemists, the sandhog's, and the reporter's" (Permanence and Change 47), not because we value the voice of each, but because we must have the expert's view. In Psychoanalysia the redeeming power of the landslide points the "Western" desire to be unanimous in our victories. Of course, the bland candidates offer no real contrasts, but another tool of the technological rationalization, "Galloping," assures us that the differences are real. In any case, opinion is manufactured in the mass and the mass becomes one.

We get further discussion of the problem (along with a discussion of a potential corrective) in "The Second Study of Middletown" (Philosophy of Literary Form 407-411). Here Burke declares science effective in American politics because of its ability to "stoop to conquer." The Lynds' efforts to survey and define "Middletown" failed, Burke supposes, because the nature of aggregate data collection requires a uniformity divorced from "genuine" opinion. "There is one fundamental problem in a book of this sort. The investigators are, by the very nature of their investigation, looking for the typical. And when you have finished, you begin to ask yourself whether there might be some important difference between the typical and history." So as Burke mentions elsewhere, the motive and statistical motive are not necessarily synonymous: "But until he is specifically indoctrinated with such a concept [statistical motive], it does not figure as a motive in his acts, so far as he personally is concerned. Hence the resentment of a staunch Catholic when told by Freudian or Marxian that his religious system is motivated by interests wholly different from those which he specifically verbalizes" (Permanence and Change 219-220). The curse of the questionnaire is that it is quantitative rather than qualitative, and the quantitative cannot see the "rare," but only the "typical" (The Philosophy of Literary Form 409).

The answer proposed by Burke in "Middletown" (actually phrased as a question) provides a helpful standard from which to evaluate the public sphere. "Might not the single song of one poet, under certain conditions, put us on the track of something that the typical platitudes of a group could give us no inkling of?" (Philosophy of Literary Form 409). Burke recognizes that "galloping" and quantitative surveys do not account for the individuality and uniqueness of opinion that forms individuality. Scientific analysis cannot account for the subtleties of opinion. Is citizen Smith firmly convinced or riding the fence? Will the opinion of Smith, when voiced to Jones and debated with vigor create a new opinion for both of them? With the aggregated (and hence calcified) data, one can never know.

Using Burke's standard, we can see how most of the proposed solutions to rescue the ailing public sphere, at least at a mass level, are dubious at best. Certainly the media, commonly cited as one of the "saviors" of the public sphere, has no room for the single poet. The political sphere certainly uses the media, but the newly popular town hall meetings, like the news conferences and other political events, are carefully scripted and staged dramas designed to facilitate political power. If you'll pardon a bad metaphoric extension, we have no "improv" in American political life. Television news programs also muffle the individual voice. Talk shows are the realm of political pundits and the media elite. Perhaps more insidious is the vicarious sense of participation they create for the television audience, because the impression of involvement destroys any perceived need for actual involvement. The curse of the mass, Burke would say, is that it provides no room for the individual.

I will leave for our discussion the answering of the question concerning other possibilities. Will the Internet open a space for community dialogue? Will some other technology or cultural shift make public discourse an integral part of the American landscape? Whatever solution we propose, it must meet the standard Burke presents by permitting and welcoming the "single voice." Perhaps, given the sheer size, let alone diversity of the "American public," no public discourse is possible.

Whatever plan we propose, we must also remember that while Burke is no cynic, he argues that what we propose is destined to calcification and closure. "We might almost lay it down as a rule of thumb: Where someone is straining to do something, look for evidence of the tragic mechanism" (Permanence and Change 195). In Attitudes Toward History he identifies this closure as the bureaucratization of the imaginative (225). Any solution is bound to calcify or become a tool of science and efficiency. We see evidence of discursive bureaucratization in Grammar of Motives where Burke specifically addresses the American democratic situation: "For here we confront the unity-diversity paradox all over again, as we see that a President who would strive to unify a democratic nation must not unify it too well. That is, if the material situation itself contains vast conflicts of interests, he must keep all the corresponding voices vocal. Yet at the same time he must seek to find some over-all motive, or situation, as would be got in some slogan featuring a common goal or enemy" (392). Our effort to create the means for privileging the "poets and singers" must be a continual reinventing, or nothing at all.

Works Cited

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