Recently I have been rereading A Grammar of Motives by the rhetorician Kenneth Burke. For those who are not familiar with Burke, his work contains an entire arsenal of useful concepts and paradoxes, helpful in uncovering tensions within various philosophical systems. At the very beginning of the text, Burke asks,

What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it? An answer to the question is the subject of this book. The book is concerned with the basic forms of thought which, in accordance with the nature of the world as all men necessarily experience it, are exemplified in the attributing of motives. (xv)

Burke is thus not so much looking at what motivates people, but rather how we attribute motives to others. “Men have talked about things in many ways, but the pentad offers a synoptic way to talk about their talk-about” (56). By contrast, Burke refers to claims about what motivates people as “philosophies” or “cauistries”. “Speaking broadly we could designate as ‘philosophies’ any statements in which these grammatical resources are specifically utilized. Random or unsystematic statements about motives could be considered as fragments of a philosophy” (xvi). Thus, on the one hand, a philosophy for Burke is a system of motives or an account of what causes people to act in a particular way. For example, I recently heard a woman claim that she supports a Clinton nomination because women are by nature nurturing and collaborative. What we have here is a fragment of a philosophy positing certain drives, natures, or instincts as the motive force in human action. A mirror of such a casuistry would be the conservative who claims that communism could never work because humans are, by nature, greedy and competitive. Again action is being explained on the basis of something internal or intrinsic to agents. By contrast, when someone like Foucault or Butler comes along, it is argued that these properties do not belong to the nature of agents intrinsically, but rather agents are produced or constructed in this way either by language, or power, or discourse, or something else besides. In this case, the explanation of an agents motive is no longer referred to intrinsic property of the agent, but rather to the scene in which the agent is contained and formed. It is scenic elements– what Badiou will call a “situation” –that account for the motives of an agent and a particular act, not something intrinsic to the agent itself. Here, “being-nuturing” results from a particular socio-historical situation that forms agents in a particular way, not from some sort of innate biological disposition.

It is clear that these different ways of attributing motives will have profound consequences for how we talk about various issues. If competitiveness, aggressiveness, or nurture are intrinsic biological properties of agents as the apologist for capitalist, a version of Freud, and this woman contend respectively, then the idea of social critique is moot from the outset. Short of some medication that would change these characteristics, the particular forms that society take are not the result of dynamics of power that could be otherwise, but are rather the result of our biology. The person critical of capitalism and envisioning another form of society would here be a naive (and dangerous) utopian, because our biological nature entails that there must necessarily be conflict and aggressiveness, as well as a distribution of the sexes. By contrast, if these properties of the agent are the result of the socio-historical scene in which the agent develops and is individuated, it follows that other forms of social organization are possible, i.e., that change is possible.

Burke’s proposal is not to take a particular position with respect to these “cauistries”– though one senses that he tends in the constructivist direction –but rather to analyze the various structures of these cauistries. Along these lines he proposes what I would call a “meta-philosophy” as a way of discerning the manner in which various ways of talking about motives are structured. Where a philosophy attempts to give an account of the nature of being, knowledge, and ethics, a meta-philosophy examines the structure of a philosophy to determine how it comprehends motives. We might say that a meta-philosophy remains agnostic as to the truth or falsity of the philosophy.

Burke proposes five broad categories (his pentad) to discuss motives: Scene, act, agent, agency, purpose. Acts are done in a scene, by an agent, often with some particular tool or means (agency), for the sake of some end. By Scene Burke is thus referring to the background or setting of an action. Agents, of course, are those doing the action. Acts are the acts done. Agency is the means by which it is done (a tool, speech, one’s body, and so on). And purpose is that for the sake of which the action is done. It is necessary to emphasize that these terms are extremely broad. Scene, for example, could be language as when talked about Lacan in the context of how the subject is formed in the field of the Other. However, language can be an act or agency in other contexts. Similarly, when Lucretius claims that everything is composed of combinations of indivisible atoms falling in the void, he is talking about scene. When Marx talks about conditions of production he is talking about scene. When Freud talks about drives and the unconscious he is talking about scene. When a religious person talks about God’s plan he is talking about scene. All of these are competing visions of scene. When Walter Ong talks about how the technology of writing transforms the nature of thought, he is talking about how an agency transforms the agent that uses it. Yet in another context, when Foucault or Kuhn talks about the impersonal murmur of language in which we find ourselves thrown, writing, archival texts, are no longer agencies, but are scenes.

Burke’s pentad is of interest in that it allows us to see, a bit more clearly, where the philosophy is placing its emphasis. For example, Sartre, Husserl, Kant, and so on, would be philosophies of the agent. The agent is placed front and center and other elements fall into the background. Most contemporary philosophies in French theory place emphasis on the scene, as in the case of Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, and many variants of Marxist thought and critical theory. More recently we’ve begun to see philosophies of the act, as in the case of Badiou or Zizek. And so on. In and of itself, this isn’t particularly interesting beyond gaining clarity as to where particular problems might emerge within a philosophy. For example, it is not difficult to see that the work of Badiou and Zizek is a response to the primacy of the scene in much contemporary French thought. Take the following passage from A. Kiarina Kordela’s $urplus, discussing Negri and Hardt:

…there is the so-called “Neo-Spinozist” line, which having long completed its critique of psychoanalysis, celebrates molecular and rhizomatic forms of identity, organization, and action. Although they themselves do no more than replicate the very structures of global capitalism, these same forms are presumed to also be subversive or revolutionary, to open lines of flught, or, in the more recent parlance of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, to express the power of the multitude (i.e., all of us). Drawing on a certain twist of Spinozian monism, this line operates according to the logic that, since there is only one substance, or since there is no exteriority to substance, the same substance must be that which sustains the existing politico-economical system and that which undermines it. Thus this line (inadvertently?) finds itself replicating the logic of the classical Hegelian-Marxist determinism, which presumed that the capitalist system is, by structural necessity, destined to bring about its own collapse…

Thus, far from involving any opposition to any oppressive power or even a course of action remotely deviating from the practices fostered by capitalism, the empowerment of the multitude, Hardt and Negri tells us, simply requires the recognition of the power that the multitude has always already had without knowing it. (2-3)

This sort of criticism could be directed at any number of contemporary theoretical constellations, whether we’re talking about Foucault’s difficulties in explaining how counter-power arises from power, difficulties among the “linguistic idealists” in explaining how it is possible to think anything new if we are products of language, Frankfurt school theorists who endlessly ape the questions “how could this be thought at such and such a particular time?” or self-reflexive questions about “how the critic is able to adopt a critical stances when that critic is itself embedded within the system?” and so on. These are problems that emerge specifically when the scenic element takes over as the overdetermining instance of motives or when scene is the ultimate explanans for everything else. Thus we say that agents are formed within scenes or situations (whether scene be understood as language, power, economics, social fields, etc), and that as products of scenes acts can only arise from scenes and return to scenes. Put differently, under this view it is impossible for an act to exceed the way in which it is structured by situations, for the act is a descendant of the scene just as the son is a descendant of the father (and is said to thereby share the father’s characteristics).

What is prohibited, it would seem, is the introduction of something new into the situation… Something that would transform the configuration of the situation or scene itself. What is required, it would seem, is the thought of an act unconditioned by scenes. Burke proposes this as the prototype of the act:

We are reasoning as follows: We are saying that, to study the nature of the term, act, one must select a protype, a paradigm of action. This prototype we find in the conception of a perfect or total act, such as the act of ‘the Creation.’ Examining this concept we find that it is ‘magic,’ for it produces something out of nothing. This enables us to equate magic with novelty– and leads us to look for a modicum of magic in every act to the extent that the act possesses a modicum of novelty. (66)

The paradigmatic act would be an act that is ex nihilo, completely unconditioned, that comes from nothing, and that produces something new. The question that seems missing from the scenic philosophers, despite their various “bells and whistles”, is this dimension of the unconditioned and the novelty that it introduces into scenes or situations. Rather, for every act– whether contemplative or in engagement with the world –the strategy is always to trace the act back to the conditioning field in which the act emerged. Yet we might ask, is there not always a remainder that resists this assimilation to the organization of the situation? Like Lucretius’ clinamen or swerve, is there not always something in the act that can’t be accounted for on the basis of atomic motion? And here is where Burke becomes most interesting, for his task is not simply to examine the ratios between the various elements of the pentad (scene, act, agency, agent, purpose), but to show how certain structural antinomies and paradoxes emerge whenever one of the terms comes to predominate with respect to the rest. In this respect, we could argue that even the most purely scenic philosophies will be haunted by the agent and act as ghosts that cannot be eradicated, even if only as “negative magnitudes”. The question would be one of turning these ghosts into positive magnitudes or making them explicit.

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