“Words are like planets, each with their own gravitational pull." Kenneth Burke

Kenneth Burke (1897 – 1993) was an American literary theorist. His intense posture toward language made him an early pioneer of poststructuralist and postmodern thought. One of the reasons Burke is associated with these ideas is because he celebrates a complex approach to language that appreciates multiple influences of meaning rather than a single correlated meaning.

Kenneth Burke

Burke explores the social dimension of thought, specifically in relation to symbolic structures and the overwhelming forces found in language. Throughout his entire body of work, he maintains the absolute centrality of language to every dimension of culture. Reading is a kind of superpower for Burke – a vital force that moves the reader to action.

Reading as a super-power is a skill requiring practice and discipline to develop. Much like Joseph Campbell’s pursuit of independent scholarship that inclined him to read for nine hours a day, Kenneth Burke also designed his path. He read and wrote with a wicked intuition for what motivated not just thought but action. 

There is no doubt in Kenneth Burke’s mind that the country is crawling with what he calls bad readers. He bookends his body of work with references to bad readers: both Counter-Statement and The War of Words demonstrate his primary concern with the act of reading.

In his first work, he blames the tumultuous political climate from which he is writing and compulsory education for creating bad readers:

“In any event, the rarity of electness of “pure” art seemed -- in an age of propaganda -- negative, retiring, and powerless. What was the value of neglected excellence, when the world was glutted with crude fiction? Had not the spread of literacy through compulsory education made readers of people who had no genuine interest in literature? Would not this group henceforth form the majority of the reading public? And would not good books pale into insignificance, not because they had fewer readers than in the past (they had more) but because an overwhelming army of bad readers had been recruited.”

Kenneth Burke, Counter Statement

Counter Statement by Kenneth Burke

It is not the spread of literacy through compulsory education responsible for creating bad readers; it is the limited view of the act of reading itself. Reading is more than decoding the signs on a page. 

This realization motivates Kenneth Burke to create systems for apprehending any given event – to hone his superpowers. Bad readers, on the other hand, have weak superpowers. One reason for this weakness, attention, finds its way into the posthumously published work, The War of Words. 

Bad readers are distracted. Reading well requires a perpetual sacrifice of resources – something Kenneth Burke refers to as tithing.

“As regards the effects of journalistic tithing by tonality, the critic should bear one important consideration in mind. News being addressed to an inattentive audience (diametrically opposite to the attention given by experts to poetry or critical prose), newspapers have become so perfectly adapted to inattention, they doubtless demand it. Hence, probably a fantastic amount of “tithing” is probably necessary to make something really sink in. Accordingly, if one reads such a medium with the close attention that he would pay to dignified texts, one may get a false impression of the rhetoric. Surely much of the excess in journalism (as in the systematic fomenting of international ill will) should be greatly discounted, when one is judging of its effects upon readers. Readers resist strongly, not in deliberate protest, but by their state of great distraction.”

Kenneth Burke, The War of Words

In his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr points this same tendency out. In our screen-saturated culture, readers often share how difficult it is to read deeply and retain what they read. Sympathetic to those same readers, Carr echoes the supercomputer, HAL, from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, who tells Dave he can feel his mind is going. Carr says he can feel it too:

“Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

There are so many tiny and consequential influences on our reading – all of which we must attend to in order to appreciate what we read. When these rich histories are combined with a distracted culture with little to no motivation for pursuing the intellect – education is compulsory after all – we end up with a culture of bad readers.

Part of what contributes to this culture of bad readers, then, is that distracted readers do not attend to all of the phenomena before them. If we are distracted from any of those elements, then our ability to appreciate what we read is severely weakened. Kenneth Burke questioned any experience that was limited in scope.

Burke was a pragmatist and highly critical of the art for art’s sake movement that characterized the romantic age. From Burke’s perspective, these artists pursued nature at the expense of everything else. But the artist is a social creature and we must consider these social elements when we think about art. Rather than conceive of the artist only in naturalistic terms, Burke sought to appreciate the convergence of several contributing influences to the social animal.

“While again, it is worthy of note, that the romantic movement tended greatly to conceive of man’s identity in nonsocial, purely naturalistic terms, specializing in such objective imagery as would most directly correspond in quality with subjective states.”

Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

Those subjective states, though, never take place in a vacuum. Burke knew literature was equipment for living, and pursuing the intellect was inherently useful. While the word “equipment” sounds a bit mechanic, it functions on various levels and for the right reasons. Every word is an event, and every event is part of a complex assemblage of symbolic actions. 

“A tree, for instance, is an infinity of events--and among these our senses abstract certain recordings which “represent” the tree.” Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

The symbolic actions informing any given event, including a tree, have their roots in biology, family, and language. For Kenneth Burke, “the symbolic act is a dancing of an attitude.” 

The reader’s job is to determine the elements that make up the dance – after all, “words are like planets, each with their own gravitational pull.” This dance is a kind of thinking that requires tithing – especially if we want our identification with what the book means to really sink in. 

Kenneth Burke on Bad Readers