Report of the Seminar

"Toward a Burkean Theory of Democracy

and Democratic Social Change"

Seminarists: Phyllis M. Japp, Thomas Flynn, David Cratis Williams, Daniel O. Buehler, Nathaniel Córdova, Janette Kenner Muir, Catherine Palczewski, Paul Stewart. Conveners: V. William Balthrop, James F. Klumpp

Ours was a broad ranging conversation focused on the character of late twentieth century democracy. Conversation was extremely lively with considerable variety among perspectives within the seminar. The result was not so much agreement as it was challenge. All of us agree, however, that we will return home with the need to reassess fundamental beliefs about our topic after considering the viewpoints of fellow seminarists. This report is organized around some central themes of discussion:

What is a democracy? The call for our seminar specified that we were not merely concerned with the institution of government, but with broader questions about how we conduct public life. Our discussion reflected this broad scope, but the relationships between public life and the institution of government remained problematic. Is it helpful to differentiate between a public sphere (entered when private issues cross into conversations with others and a subsequent sense of community responsibility for the problem) and a governmental sphere (pertaining specifically to institutions of government)? Some of our group argued that this distinction was fundamental, that those cynical about the governmental sphere remained energized to participate in a public sphere and accepted the responsibilities and strengths associated with it. Others took the position that only a healthy participation in governmental processes can lead to a fully operating democracy.

Places of agreement occurred on what constitutes democracy. We explored the nature of Burke's metaphor of the "parlor conversation," but some questioned the exclusivity they saw in that metaphoric space. Others believed the metaphor established the terms for an earned access to public life. We also noted the importance to democracy of what Burke labeled "the wrangle of the barnyard" or the "parliamentary wrangle," as well as the distinctions between them. The most compelling characteristic that we identified in the Burkean vision of democracy was "cooperative competition." This notion emphasizes that those participating in a democracy must articulate both identification with their communal substance (granting the power of choice to the discursive practices of their community) and assert their difference (assertion of perspective as a contribution to community). Discourse may vary in the emphasis between these terms, but democratic discourse enacts both in its messages.

Dimensions of Democracy: One way of expressing this perspective would be to develop terms which frame democratic symbolic action. As we discussed, three recurred: dialectic, identification, and ritual. "Dialectic" stresses disagreement, the adversarial, as well as the possibility of transformation; "identification" frames the dialectic as performed in the context of "the other." In democratic discourse, there is awareness of audience. Appeals are a necessary part of democracy, and appeals must rise above self-interest to frame situations in some greater notion of the common. Effectiveness requires this; that is the essence of the rhetorical art. This engagement is also the ethic of democracy; that choice is framed by motivation that identifies the speaker with his/her community. "Ritual" stresses that an account of democratic discourse must be punctuated more broadly than the individual message. Democracy frames a praxis, a way of acting. Democratic motives frame situations in particular patterns of symbolic action, and in the framing reinvent democracy anew. Only with a discourse that reproduces the commitments and meanings of democracy can democracy continue. In summary, democratic communication is marked by the risking of the self in assertion, framed by identification with democratic commitments of community, and performs rituals of democratic renewal.

The Status of Our Democracy: Critique of our current political practice came easily. That practice seems plagued by the impact of reduction: participation reduced to voting; voters to poll respondents; leadership to delivering messages; public opinion to poll reports and phone/mail counts; communication to sound bites. But as we focused more broadly on democratic practice in the late twentieth century, several more difficult issues marked our discussion. Are our students (or "are we" for that matter) cynical or skeptical about democratic participation? Although we never resolved the question, it opened an important distinction. Skepticism is an intellectual position, using doubt in productive ways. The ancient "cynics" took skepticism to such an extent that they separated themselves in fundamental ways from the norms of their society. They saw themselves removed. Is what we see in our modern democracy a cynicism or a skepticism? In which spheres?

We asked ourselves whether there was a place (physically and metaphorically) for debate in our society. Diatribe seems to be alive and well on the internet and in our other media. Yet so many seem to isolate themselves from traditional forms of political expression, rejecting the character of those engaged in the political process, and claiming disinterest. But just as surely, there are counter-publics: places where those on the margins of traditional participation are able to develop their voices to join in new community relationships that can fundamentally change the nature of public interaction.

All of us agree that a key moment in our seminar was when Convener Balthrop confronted us: Maybe this is, in fact, the golden age of democracy, he asserted. Counter-publics proliferate. Anyone can mount a home page on the internet. White supremacists reinforce each other electronically. Little can be said without someone getting in your face, disagreeing with your opinion. There are a thousand opinions on any issue. The seminar had a hard time denying the description he provided, but had a more difficult time determining what the fact of the description implied. Is the crisis of modern democracy fundamentally about quality of discourse when Balthrop stresses quantity? Is he describing a healthy public sphere when our despair is over the governmental sphere? Is his judgement right as well as his description: Is this indeed the golden age of democracy?

Politics is "speech plus . . .": One member cautioned us that democracy must involve more than "mere" talk. This seemed a good warning to a seminar filled with those who teach speech. One of our readings was Frank Lentricchia's treatment of the relationship between teaching and action. As teachers, we recognized that our task was to enable or empower our students to democratic activity. Democracy is not a "natural" condition that emerges if only barriers to it are removed; rather it is a human potentiality that must be developed. But we had intense discussion about what we teach and how we teach it to develop democratic power. One view stressed the wrangle, the tragic rite of the kill, the strategic instrumentalism that traditionally marks the teaching of persuasion: preparing our students to be agents of change. The other view stressed that meaningful democracy connects public notions in an intense way with "lived life." This idea seemed to connect with notions of "literature as equipment for living," with identification as the stress in the new rhetoric, and with the preference for the comic frame. Which view democratically empowers our students? Is the assertive engagement with other opinions, or identification with others in defining the situation, the central democratic act? Is a language of "strategy" more appropriate than a language of "style" in approaching our teaching? Is the symbolic action we teach substitute for, rather than participation in, democratic action? We talked extensively about discourse, we recognized that discourse implicated action in a healthy democracy, but the character of democratic action -- for us as teachers, for us and our students as citizens, remained unresolved.

Undeveloped Burkean Powers in Democracy and Democratic Change: Our conversation was not so much about Burkean concepts as about modern democracy. Yet some Burkean powers surfaced, at times briefly, at times dominating the edges of our discussion. We isolated three as crucial in our report.

First, the notion of the appropriateness of the comic versus the tragic frames in politics was a common, yet unresolved theme of our discussion. The two views of our teaching discussed in the section above seemed to mark the fault line on this issue. In modern democracy, does a failure to recognize the tragic "rite of the kill" as a fact of politics disempower? Is the tragic at the heart of social change in a healthy democracy? Does the tragic work us toward redemption and thus cleanse and reinvent democratic forms? Burke seems to articulate a preference for the comic frame, yet his most powerful work -- "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" for example -- implements a tragic frame. Politics today is certainly marked by the wrangle and a healthy commitment to the symbolic rite of the kill. Is that wrangle feeding cynicism and destroying commitments to politics? Or is cynicism fed by a sense of inaction that would be fed by the comic?

A second Burkean theme, emphasized by Denis Donoghue's plenary presentation was the aesthetics of democracy. One of the principles that a Burkean perspective on democracy seems to suggest is that political ends are achieved through aesthetic means. The seminar observed that current political discourse seems often to be shaped in what Burke has called a "psychology of information" (perhaps illustrated in Tony Schwartz' image of The Responsive Chord, messages work by plucking the strings of voters) rather than a "psychology of form." The latter would involve the merger of substance and style in an aesthetics of action. We noted Burke's discussion of constitutions, a merger of substance and style as a representative anecdote for democracy. And we observed that such efforts as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech indicate that moments when the aesthetic of politics is most accomplished are moments when our democracy seems most endearing and enduring.

Third, we noted that a major unexplored power of Burkean criticism is the power of invention. At one point in our discussions, we raised a materialist voice: democracy implies not only a process but also a material arrangement of society. The notion reminds us that democratic social change requires a vocabulary of motives that names situations in "a way that we will be able to do something about them." Today, our society seems to be beset by problems that are not yielding to democratic politics as practiced. The dislocations from globalization of the economy come to mind, as do the other issues that compose the "age of anxiety." America's racial divide continues unabated, perhaps even exacerbated by languages of "affirmative action." Abortion practices divide the nation as the search for "common ground" struggles. Among the powers of Burkean criticism is the power to develop and name situations in ways that open democratic approaches to them. Burkean critics become inventors of discourse as well as commentators on the invention of others. This more broadly conceived notion of inventing motives that shape praxis is one of the untapped powers that can empower democracy and democratic change.

Toward a Reinvigorated Democracy and Democratic Social Change: The lively discussion of our four days in Pittsburgh leaves each of us with questions to ask about our assumptions and new ideas to track down in approaching the crisis in democracy. We were a committed seminar, intense in our commitments to democracy, eager to engage others working on the problem, and willing to explore many ideas about democracy and democratic social change. We appreciate the opportunity that the seminar provided for conversation, wrangle, and invention.

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