The Politics of Using Burke in Critical/Cultural Scholarship

I sometimes hear white, heterosexual rhetoricians claim that, “Burke can be applied to any cultural artifact.” I guess I shouldn’t be shocked when I see academics using Burke to investigate gender, race, class, and sexuality. I get especially frustrated when they rely on Burke to consider how these themes are depicted on TV programs and films, and in music videos and digital contexts. Even if one begins with the assumption that Burke CAN be applied to everything, there’s a huge leap between CAN and SHOULD. Here are just a few reasons I believe Burke should NOT be central in critiquing contemporary enactments of gender, sex, race, and/or class.

Regarding Sociological Marginality

  • Burke didn’t have much to say about the critical aspects of gender, race, and sexuality. These are not  dominant themes in his work. Matters of sexuality are, in fact, totally absent in Burke’s “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” despite Hitler’s discussion of perverse sexual discourse in Chapter 10 of Mein Kampf and the dictator’s scapegoating and genocide of sexual minorities in Nazi Germany.
  • You know who has a LOT to say about gender, race, and sexuality? Patricia Hill Collins, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, and Michael Warner, among other brilliant minds not conveniently housed in heterosexual, white bodies.
  • Two important caveats: First, the aforementioned critical theorists come with their own respective baggage. Racism, for instance, is a huge void in Foucault’s oeuvre. Second, white, straight dudes sometimes have brilliant things to say about people of color and sexual minorities. But they don’t do themselves any favors when they rely on other straight, white men to help articulate those insights, especially when their claims ignore critical theories that COME FROM the communities they implicate.
  • I question the ethics of any academic who willfully ignores cultural theories emergent within a group when they are STUDYING that particular community. This practice perpetuates the myth that queer theory is specialized knowledge only relevant to sexual minorities; or that critical race theory only applies to men and women of color.
  • You aren’t really performing critical/cultural work when you continue to treat people from marginalized communities as OBJECTS of inquiry, rather than your intellectual equals. You are part of the problem when you STUDY but don’t CITE us.

Regarding Text

  • Burke’s notion of text isn’t the same as Baudrillard’s. When Burke talks about “literature as equipment for living,” he means…literature, not Eminem videos, the movie Fight Club, or episodes of Will & Grace. Rhetoricians have casuistically stretched Burke’s idea of a text to include films, songs, and other cultural modes of expression, but, let’s not kid ourselves, Burke’s focus was the sort of material you’d find in a library, in the 1950s.
  • Here’s another, more sophisticated way of saying “equipment for living”: performativity. Theories of performativity—which focus on reiteration, citation, and cultural sedimentation—are tactically designed to look at postmodern media. And here’s the best part: there’s a self-aware irony in Butler co-opting this theory from a straight, white Brit. Austin, after all, grounds his discussion of performativity in the mechanics of heterosexual ritualization: the “I do” uttered at a wedding.
  • Queer philosopher Judith Butler’s hijacking of performativity is gloriously ironic. A white, heterosexual person primarily relying on other white, heterosexuals to prove points about sexual minorities and people of color is NOT ironic.

My apologies to Carlson, Johnson and Prosise, and Tonn, Endress, and Diamond, among a few others, who have written staggeringly fantastic Burkean essays exploring gender, race, and class. Yes, it CAN be done. But at this particular cultural moment, when the politics of canonical representation is a pressing exigence in our discipline, I ask rhetoricians to consider the difference between “can” and “should.”

*You can replace Burke with many other canonical straight, white dudes.