Kenneth Burke: WORDS ACROSS
Extract from critic Kenneth Burke's 1963
paper "Definition of Man", which was reprinted in his Language
as Symbolic Action. Burke proposes this definition: "Man is
the symbol-making animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his
natural condition by instruments of his own making, moved by the sense
of order, and rotten with perfection." This is from his discussion of the
The "symbol-using animal", yes, obviously.
But can we bring ourselves to realize just what that formula implies, just
how much of what we mean by "reality" has been built up for us through
nothing but our symbol systems? Take away our books, and what little
do we know about history, biography, even something so "down to earth"
as the relative position of the seas and continents? What is our "reality"
for today (beyond the paper-thin line of our own particular lives) but
all this clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things
we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers and the like about the
present? In school, as they go from class to class, students turn
from one idiom to another. The various courses in the curriculum
are in effect but so many different terminologies. And however important
to us is the tiny sliver of reality each of us has experienced firsthand,
the whole overall "picture" is but a construct of our symbol systems.
To meditate on this fact until one sees its full implications is much like
peering over the edge of things into an ultimate abyss. And doubtless
that's one reason why, though man is typically the symbol-using animal,
he clings to a kind of naive verbal realism that refuses to realize the
full extent of the role played by symbolicity in his notions of reality.
In responding to words, with their overt and covert modes of persuasion,...
we like to forget the kind of relation that really prevails between the
verbal and the nonverbal. In being a link between us and the nonverbal,
words are by the same token a screen separating us from the nonverbal --
though the statement gets tangled in its own traces, since so much of the
"we" that is separated from the nonverbal by the verbal would not even
exist were it not for the verbal (or for our symbolicity in general, since
the same applies to the symbol systems of dance, music, painting, and the
like.) A road map that helps us easily find our way from one side
of the continent to the other owes its great utility to its exceptional
existential poverty. It tells us absurdly little about the trip that
is to be experienced in a welter of detail. Indeed, its value for
us is in the very fact that it is so essentially inane.
Language referring to the realm of the nonverbal
is necessarily talk about things in terms of what they are not -- and
in this sense we start out beset by a paradox. Such language
is but a set of labels, signs for helping us find our way about.
Indeed, they can even be so useful that they help us to invent ingenious
ways of threatening to destroy ourselves. But even
accuracy of this powerful sort does not get around the fact that such
terms are sheer emptiness, as compared to the substance of the things they
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