Thursday, October 25, 2018

Kenneth Burke's Counter-Statement - a turn from the stress upon self-expression to a stress upon communication

Walter Benjamin logistics:  In my memory, used copies of Illuminations were everywhere, but it seems that lovers of critical theory and children’s literature have read so many copies to pieces that the market is not so flooded.  A new edition is being published in January.  It looks like it has a new cover, but otherwise looks like the same old thing.  It is a little odd that this specific configuration of Benjamin has been so enduring.

My point is that my plans are in no way changed, so that I plan to read the most battered, underlined copy of Illuminations I can find and write something on it in early December, or maybe in late November sneaking it in for German Literature Month – in its eighth year! – but if you planned to read along and prefer some new-book crispness in your reading matter, there will be a new book.  You may want to wait a bit.

Then there is a new configuration of Benjamin from Tess Lewis and NYRB in March.  Interesting.  But that is something different.

Meanwhile, I have continued my own reading of the greats of 20th century literary criticism with Kenneth Burke’s Counter-Statement (1931, although I read the expanded 1968 edition).  Counter to what, exactly?  As Burke notes in the preface to a subsequent edition, he is vague on this subject.  He is not a Marxist critic, not a Freudian, not a disciple of T. S. Eliot.  Whatever is going on in criticism in the late 1920s, he is not doing it.  He is doing something else.

The first essay is portrait of three art-for-art’s-sakers, Flaubert and Pater and Remy de Gourmont.  The second, “Psychology and Form,” moves the subject to readers and their expectations about forms, and the way writers use those expectations.  Burke describes this as “a turn from the stress upon self-expression to a stress upon communication” (223-4).  This turn continues through the book, perhaps through Burke’s career (Counter-Statement is his first book).  Burke like both, by the way, just as he likes a diversity of readers.  He is a generous critic.

I thought the first essay was terrific, with a Flaubert who looked a lot like my Flaubert, a Pater who behaved like the one I read, and a lot of interesting stuff about Gourmont, who had been a rumor to me.  Another highlight is a dual essay, “Thomas Mann and André Gide,” full of surprising parallels.  Burke was an early champion of both writers; he sees them both as “trying to make us at home in indecision…  trying to humanize the state of doubt” (105).

But of course I prefer – understand – Burke when he is writing about specific writers.  In the second half of Counter-Statement, he becomes more abstract, more of a systematizer, with essays titled “Program” and “Lexicon Rhetoricae” and “Applications of the Terminology,” which are not as dull as they sound, but were harder on my teeth.  “Program,” a move towards literature as sociology, may be as dull as it sounds.  I wonder if it is parodying something.

When I read Burke or Kermode or Benjamin, am I studying criticism or the history of criticism?  Some of each.


  1. I find literary criticism fascinating. With that I have not read enough of it to have intelligent opinions on much of the typical issues thaf it typically involved..I am always torn as to whether or not to devote limited reading time to criticism or literature itself. Burke sounds really interesting.

  2. Criticism is literature itself, a minor art, but an art. "Literature" is just good writing, which can be about anything, even literature.

    Plus, I need models and ideas for my own writing. I would not want to limit myself to the criticism written by amateurs on blogs, bless them all.