Underlining Random Terms In a Dense Book

This summer I am reading from my list of 100 items (50 books and 50 articles) for my Ph.D. comprehensive exams.  Much of this list includes theory, and while I’ve been thorough on my readings of most everything so far, one book has reduced me to skimming and underlining random terms that seem important.  It is Kenneth Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (1966).

language as symbolic action kenneth burke

Based on the title, you’d think I would love this book, especially since my own blog subtitle echoes his subtitle.  And I do like it.  However, much of the content is unrelated to my field of professional communication.  And while a good theoretical essay about Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Goethe’s Faust, or Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood is certainly interesting, I don’t have time to engage in them properly.  I am not studying drama or literature, as much as I would love to, so this book has me skimming for the important stuff that might cross over into my field.  That means my focus is on Burke’s ideas on rhetoric.

So far, I’ve underlined the following gems.

Emergent political institutions
Guilt towards women as a class
Golden misanthropy
Frailties attributed to Everywoman
Paradox of substance
Royal victim
Virility of the hero
Terministic prowess
Popular consumption of crude political oratory

The terms I know are applicable to me, and that I recognize from other readings and class discussions are these.

Terministic screens
Scapegoat
Identification
Rotten with perfection
Rhetoric of persuasion
Individualism
Hubris

So I’ll continue to do the best I can with this never-ending, 506-page book.  I hope that what I gather from this skimming and “random” underlining helps me on my upcoming exams and gives me ideas for applying such theories to my field of professional communication.

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34 thoughts on “Underlining Random Terms In a Dense Book

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  1. I’ve not written a PhD, but I remember the days of completing a literature major doing the very same thing. I don’t know if it was better or worse studying during the days without internet access. I feel for you

    1. It is hard to tell if the Internet has made things harder or easier. Certainly, access to information is easier, but the amount of it can be overwhelming. I’m amazed at Burke’s astute observations about technology that apply to us today in this book from 1966.

  2. I, too, have struggled through Burke’s texts. Eventually I began to view his work as poetry; that is, I didn’t read for content so much as for insight and inspiration.

    I was fortunate to be in the front row to hear Burke speak at 4Cs about 25 years ago when I was in grad school. He had to be in his nineties. A guy I’d met at the conference and was hanging out with at sessions knew I’d used Burke’s work, so at the end of Burke’s talk, he grabbed my conference program and went up to ask him to sign it!

    So, yeah , I guess I’m a nerdy groupie with my Kenneth Burke autograph in my office 🙂

    1. That is so cool! Many of my colleagues would be jealous of the autograph and your experience. I like the suggestion to read it like poetry. His writing isn’t well organized, and the ideas seem to flit in and out, so poetry works. Thanks!

  3. Emily, some interesting subtitles and themes. I was drawn to “terministic prowess.” Is that a version of “power corrupts” or is it that what makes us successful, gives us a blind eye toward our shortcomings? Thanks for sharing and best wishes, as always, BTG

    1. I think Burke is using it in relation to his idea of terministic screens, that language is a symbol for action. So prowess would be using language or symbols well in a rhetorical manner? Your guess is as good as mine! I’m still digesting this stuff. 🙂

  4. Hey. I was just looking Kenneth Burke up on Wikipedia to see how old he would have been at that 4Cs conference, and I saw a note that Harry Chapin (“The Cat’s in the Cradle”) was Burke’s grandson. Small world, so full of surprises!

    1. It is part of his definition of “man.” I think it just means the idea that we are all a little obsessed with perfection, and therefore rotten with it. It haunts us.

  5. What is your Ph D on? I am hoping to follow in your footsteps and get a Ph. D as well. I hope anyway!!! It sounds like your are doing a lot of research, I love research and theory. I’ve got issues I know. Good Luck!!!! 🙂

    1. I love research and writing too. It sounds like you would like grad school. My field is professional communication in an English department (so editing and technical writing).

  6. Your comment made me a little nostalgic, no that’s too positive a word for those headache inducing days when I was studying for PhD prelims, nonetheless, it made me remember the olden days when paper was the only way to read. I came to recognize from all the books I read in the humanities library who were the skillful underliners. These folks actually helped me plow through all the reading I had to do by already pointing out the key terms.

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