Burke and Derrida

While re-reading Kenneth Burke’s Counter-Statement (1931), I couldn’t help noticing a thematic similarity between the end of Burke’s “Thomas Mann and Andre Gide” and a chunk from the middle of Derrida’s famous essay, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” These two passages seem linked in a kind of call-and-response relationship, with Burke wondering if there could ever be “a disintegrating art” (CS 105) which would prevent society from becoming too full of itself, and Derrida answering that language always already contains the “play” necessary to achieve precisely this purpose (WD 289).

First the Burke:

“Since the body is dogmatic, a generator of belief, society might well be benefitted by the corrective of a disintegrating art, which converts each simplicity into a complexity, which ruins the possibility of ready hierarchies, which concerns itself with the problematical, the experimental, and thus by implication works corrosively upon those expansionistic certainties preparing the way for our social cataclysms. An art may be of value purely through preventing society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly, itself.” (105)

Then the Derrida:

“[N]ontotalization can also be determined in another way: no longer from the standpoint of a concept of finitude as relegation to the empirical, but from the standpoint of the concept of play … [T]he nature of the field—that is, language and a finite language—excludes totalization. This field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions.” (289)

While I do see interesting connections here, I think it’s important to consider this a thematic rather than a truly theoretical similarity between Burke and Derrida, because not all art is discursive/linguistic. Burke is calling for an art that would resist the modern/bourgeois impulse toward simplicity, efficiency, and totality (an impulse he elsewhere refers to as the desire for “ideal Fascism”—114), and it seems pretty clear that he intends this art to be the conscious, willed reaction of specific agents to the specific circumstances of their time. Derrida’s notion of “play,” on the other hand, requires no conscious agents or willful actors; the indeterminate nature of language itself provides the resistance of simplicity, efficiency, and totality that Burke seeks in “disintegrating art,” and so for Derrida, the communicative nature of social relationships acts as a guarantee against the Fascistic impulse Burke feared.

Burke talks throughout “Program” of the relationship between art and politics, and it seems as if, for him, the political role of art is that of a fly in the ointment, a space for the perpetual resistance of claims to certainty and perfection. As society pushes itself toward total efficiency—think Henry Ford and the assembly line—Burke’s conception of disintegrating art pushes back in the opposite direction, slowing down the assembly line just enough to remind us of the distance between man and machine:

“‘Efficiency’ was required to develop the machine. ‘Inefficiency’ is required as the counter-principle to prevent the machine from becoming too imperious and forcing us into social complexities which require exceptional delicacy of adjustment.” (120-21)

This all sounds great, of course—I love just about anything that argues art will ultimately save humanity from machines—but there’s a lacuna lurking beneath the surface of Burke’s thinking here: If man is a product of his environment, then how can we be certain the artist-as-political-agitator will see through his environs with the clarity and insight necessary to ‘see’ the machine for what it is? Burke hoists an awfully heavy burden on the shoulders of a society’s artistic population, and his faith in the artist’s “sensitiveness to many cultural values of the past” (110) isn’t (at least for me) a strong enough failsafe against the totalizing nature of Fascistic efficiency. Where else, then, can we turn?

For Derrida and the poststructuralists, we can turn to language as our failsafe. The inherent gap between signifier and signified precludes the certainty espoused by Burke’s opponents, and the “field of infinite substitutions” (i.e., “play”) guarantees that the ruthless efficiency of the assembly line can never become absolute. If the words we use in daily thought/interaction cannot be pinned down in exact one-to-one relationships with their referents, then the social systems arising from the use of these words will be similarly imperfect, imprecise, incomplete. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” or something like that…

As Counter-Statement makes clear, the early Burke viewed art as a means of saving society from itself. And though I tend to agree with him that the potential for salvation exists in various art forms, I’m uncomfortable relying on visionary artists—as individual actors existing in the context of complex real-world scenes—to shepherd us through our darkest times. I do think, however, that Derrida and the PS crowd have a lot to offer Burke in finding a solution to this issue via the indeterminacy inherent in language.

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