"Rhetoric is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic and continually born anew: the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.

Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives

Apart from his criticism of bad readers and his insight on the role of identification in reading and rhetoric, Kenneth Burke (1897 – 1993) teases out a theory of reading that incorporates rhythm and promotes harmony of our experience.

“If, in a work of art, the poet says something, let us say, about a meeting, writes in such a way that we desire to observe that meeting, and then, if he places that meeting before us — that is form. While obviously, that is also the psychology of the audience, since it involves desires and their appeasements.” Kenneth Burke, Counter Statement

Counter Statement by Kenneth Burke
Burke’s posture toward reading constantly emphasized rhythm, especially in his first book, Counter-Statement (1931). Rhythm is not only deeply artistic, which contributes to an overall poetic beauty, it also relies on patterns of experience and biological sensitivity. He sees reading as a kind of dance that relies on expectations of form. A writer raises an idea in the reader’s mind, creating a desire for a specific outcome and then fulfills the desire for the reader. The reader, though, must participate. Burke likens the book to a musical score that offers instructions on how to live. Just like a musical score, the book must be read. There is a beautiful tango between psychology and form. This dance relies on the careful articulation of the writer and the intense attention of the reader. Passive reading, then, is impossible. Reading is participatory. It is the active orientation of the reader that informs our experience. Inheriting his view of the materiality of words from Paul Valery, Burke recognizes the effects of language on reality. Literature is equipment for living and Burke recognizes a life-giving energy that is inherent in communication. Like Ernst Cassirer before him, Burke saw the artist as the discoverer of forms.
"Truth in art is not the discovery of facts, not an addition to human knowledge in the scientific sense of the word. It is, rather, the exercise of human propriety, the formulation of symbols which rigidify our sense of poise and rhythm. Artistic truth is an externalization of taste."

Kenneth Burke, Counter Statement

The artist has the gift of seeing – a way to synthesize and make beautiful the fragments . of any given subject. The reader, too, is an artist. What the artist sees is the ambiguity between form and content. In The Art of Wonder, William Covino comments on this trail Burke blazes in calling for a dynamic posture of reading – one that exploits the ambiguity of language:

"Kenneth Burke is perhaps the first "postmodern" of this century. In 1931 he wrote Counterstatement in response to the positivistic movements in both science and the arts; there, in his "Lexicon Rhetoricae," Burke proposes that form and meaning in discourse are entirely ambiguous phenomena. The critic's task is the exploitation of that ambiguity; toward that end, as Burke writes later, we need "terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise." Burke stands alone, through the New Critical middle of this century, as the great complicator of positivistic and "logocentric" criticism and as a performer of those "inverse, evolutions, and harlequin changes" that "eddy about a truth." William Covino, The Art of Wondering

The ambiguity of form and content demands a dynamic approach to reading, one that echoes Henri Bergson’s approach to intuition and cognition and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception. Bergson uses the metaphor of the cinematographic mechanism of thought to appreciate a moving and dynamic cognitive process. The way we apprehend phenomena of any kind, especially a book, celebrates this dynamism, and according to Burke, reading this book calls for a kind of rhythm, which is partly seen as a way to apprehend patterns of form.

Rhythm relies on repeated patterns of experience that set expectations and build anticipation. Experimental writers play with formal expectations. Kenneth Burke says it is often the realization of formal elements – and the deviation from these formal constructs – that provide our greatest pleasures in reading.

Anticipating the literary method of deconstruction that enters the scene with Jacques Derrida’s famous essay, “Structure, Sign, and Play,” Burke recognizes we must learn the rules before we can break them – and more importantly, enjoy them.

“Rhythm appeals as conventional form in so far as specific awareness of the rhythmic pattern is involved in our enjoyment.” Kenneth Burke, Counter Statement

So what does it take to enjoy the rhythm of prose? In the same way walking demands a combination of several muscles working together all at once, reading and writing involve a socially constructed logic of sense perceptions – senses that are not necessarily operating on a conscious level. Readers are perpetually off balance and must navigate a text through several modes of inquiry all at once.

“We do not imply that one consciously notes such a multitude of dissimilar balances, any more than one consciously notes the complexity of muscular tensions involved in walking, but as there is an undeniable complexity of muscular tensions involved in walking, so there is a multitude of dissimilar balances involved in expert prose.” Kenneth Burke, Counter Statement

To find this balance in a text, Kenneth Burke employs introduces something he calls the pentad in his 1945 book, Grammar of Motives. The pentad offers readers insight into the context and inner workings of any given rhetorical act. This is one of Kenneth Burke’s most profound contributions is the systematic method for understanding what all goes into this kind of participatory reading. Reading is activated through the convergence of the elements in Burke’s pentad.

The Pentad is a critical method of inquiry that looks at the relationships between five functions of a rhetorical situation to heighten a reader’s understanding of the human motivation involved.

Kenneth Burke Pentad

Kenneth Burke's Pentad

  • Act
  • Scene
  • Agent
  • Agency
  • Purpose

We must know the rules in order to break them. It might come as no surprise, then, that when it came to Burke’s fiction, he is associated with experimental novelists from the late 20th century. Like them, Burke played with form and structure and challenged conventional norms.

Kenneth Burke’s contribution to rhetoric is what is most discussed in present day, but he also wrote fiction that servers to reinforce his posture toward knowledge. The way he is situated next to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway is fascinating, but he is also described as a precursor to Italo Calvino, William H. Gass, and Nicholson Baker, which is even more intriguing.

“Before he turned to criticism and became the American Coleridge, Kenneth Burke was a writer of fiction. His avant-garde short stories were unlike any others of the 1920s; indeed, stories even remotely like them would not come along for decades. Not for Burke the stripped-down language of Hemingway or the topical social satire of Fitzgerald; instead he was intent on constructing rhetorically gorgeous “peopled essays” that anticipated, by nearly half a century, the work of Calvino, Gass, and Nicholson Baker.

More precisely, Burke appropriated for modernism the forgotten formal modes — and the bawdy comic verve — of Tristam Shandy and Candide. His characters are thinkers, not doers; they lament, rejoice, beseech, admonish, aphorize, and inveigh in the manner of a Greenwich Village Samuel Johnson. Between the arias, as it were, they reveal something of themselves, their motives, and their moral predicaments. “Burke’s sentences are so eventful,” says Denis Donoghue, “that the uneventfulness of the ‘whole’ is a delusion. [His stories] are like the human body when it seems to be doing nothing . . . but all the time the internal life is throbbing and buzzing, al the organs at ‘full throttle.'”

Burke learned the rules in order to break them, but his articulation of the rules offered systems to organize the knowledge apprehended by readers – all of which reinforced pattern formation and recognition to help readers detect the rhythm of their reading. Virginia Woolf famously attributes style to a recognition of rhythm, which Burke recognizes as wholly reliant on our previously built symbolic structures of thought.

Burke even says we think in a crescendo, but before making such a bold claim, he reminds the reader that there is no such general thing as a crescendo. Similar to the patterns Individual works of art are arranged in a way that offer the same climactic effects that our brains discern in nature.

“Over and over again in the history of art, different material has been arranged to embody the principle of the crescendo; and this must be so because we think in a crescendo, because it parallels certain psychic and physical processes which are at the roots of our experience.” Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement

The art of reading and thinking, then, stems from apprehending and exploiting the ambiguities at the root of our experience. Buried in the depths of our being, Kenneth Burke recognizes the simultaneous presence of harmony and discord. 

“Burke believes, above all else, in ingratiation, and his manner is indeed ingratiating… Burke’s own ingratiating ways stem from an essential combativeness.”

Merle E. Brown, Kenneth Burke: American Writers

Kenneth Burke on the Rhythm of Reading