Sunday, February 03, 2008

Burke proposes five broad categories to discuss motives: Scene, act, agent, agency, purpose

Scene and Act from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects
Recently I have been rereading A Grammar of Motives by the rhetorician Kenneth Burke.
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...

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment