Tag Archives: Kenneth Burke

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The Certainty of Narrative Form

We think and produce our thoughts, necessarily coming to terms with the requirements of the story format.

An academic rhetorician gets to be absolutely certain about very few things.  But there is one core concept of human communication that is mostly unchallengeable. Simply stated, it is that our world is mostly understood and communicated to others through the structure of narrative.  As the essayist Joan Didion once noted, “We tell stories in order to live.” We may have myriad theories of “ways of knowing,” but few can match the simple story structure as a representation of how we process events.  The story format is nothing less than our primary way to process nearly all human events.

kenneth burke

Building on the work of master critic Kenneth Burke, we can count on a story structure to generally have five parts that are either explicit or sometimes assumed but not said. His “pentad” formalized the structure. Narratives come with:

Agents—those engaged in an action—often verbal
Acts—what is actually attempted in a given situation
Agencies—the specific terms and locutions sources of narratives choose to use
Scenes—events or locations that give the action meaning
Purposes—known or assumed intentions of agents for their actions.

Name almost any human transaction and it is possible to spin out the stated or implied elements of the pentad. When the leader of North Atlantic Treaty Organization recently chose a public setting (scene) to announce Turkey’s agreement to allow the admission of Sweden to be a member, all of the pentadic elements were in their place. Every member must agree on new members, with Turkey holding out for a year. So, when they finally agreed, it was important to put on a show of unity (purpose). The NATO leader stood next to both presidents, in front of the three relevant flags on an otherwise sparse stage. And the announcement (act) used diplomatic language (agency) to emphasize the sought after unity that had been the goal of intense private negotiations. Burke would have noted that the expected elements of the pentad were all confirmed in the moment. The scene was as it needed to be to satisfy various international audiences. The three leaders were the necessary agents fulfill the act.  It also meant that one of the principals could not be absent. The addition of an American flag would have been out of place. And the President of Turkey kept his about reservations about Sweden mostly to himself.

This is all obvious. But that’s the point. This simple form is embedded in virtually any news reporting across all media. Narrative form requires how certain rhetorical acts will be played out. No element is missing or out of place. One could swap out any of these elements with different choices and the nominal unity of the moment would begin to unravel.

We read the components of narrative almost intuitively. And we reserve most of our criticisms for those acts that seem to be in tension with any other part of this pentad. We know how to behave at a wedding or funeral. We know how to be “diplomatic” around a person with a short fuse.  And we guess–endlessly–about the motives of others. In short, we study or produce rhetoric, coming to terms based on what Burke described as the normative “ratios” between the pentadic elements. This is usually life as we wish it to be. If an event is unsatisfying, we can look for a tension that may exist between any two of these five elements. In the unlikely event that we should we want comedy, then we can go ahead and misalign scene and act, agent and agency, or act and purpose. If a comedy of failed expectations does not follow, embarrassment surely will.

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The Mandate for Compliance over Initiative

The rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on all of us. Organizations want more data than can be meaningfully used, with few incentives to strive for brevity.

A few years ago law professor Alan Dershowitz described one litigation strategy used by large corporate defendants as “papering the other side to death.” He meant, of course, that a lawyered-up organization can intimidate a plaintiff  by requiring so much data and information that the cost of a “win” becomes too risky and time-consuming.

The phrase has always stuck with me as a perfect representation of a much broader and common bureaucratic document completion documents that take up light years of a hapless consumer’s time.  Of course, paper has often been replaced by online documents forms. But the effect is the same, and we all have our stories. My recently completed online form for a COVID booster shot fell just short of the time needed to sign the papers to buy a house. Even after checking the “Male” and age boxes, the form would not allow me to go forward to the next page until I indicated that I was not pregnant.  Similarly, friends enrolling in Social Security talk of months of efforts to reach an agent.  It’s gotten so bad that AARP, the people who write about retirement, note that seniors may need to hire a professional to access the money from the agency they earned in their working years.

There seems to be a natural tendency to bureaucratize even the simplest processes, ostensibly to be “uniform” and complete. Most of this laid-on complexity seems to be in response to lawyers, who can imagine nearly limitless ways an organization might be sued for not asking the right questions. Few organizations hold their staffs to what would be a useful rule I tried to adopt as the Chair of an academic Department, namely, to try to hold endless requests for reports and information to responses one page written in comprehensible English.  There were raised eyebrows in meetings when other chairs noticed my paltry one page passed along to the Dean in the midst of their much thicker reports.  And, truth to be told, I did screw up the department budget in my quest for brevity.

There seems to be a kind of rules function within organizations that functions to mystify others into compliance. For example, no one reads the “conditions of use” fine-print attached to nearly every downloaded application.  But the sheer volume of the legalese lends authority to the source. If you don’t like a product, you have at least been “papered” with warnings and caveats.

These days the process of taking your self or your car in for service will include a long session for data entry. The front desk clerk taking down your information is now likely to go through a prolonged set of questions that leaves little time for a description of the problem that you want solved.  Filling in forms seems to be a primary function that now exists for its own sake, or because an organization sees itself as mostly in the data management business.

Think of who gets hired and promoted in the organizational world: policy specialists, compliance officers, lawyers, professional writers, contract law specialists, employees charged with reviewing procedures, and especially organizational members–some with OCD tendencies–that see any free choice as something that can be turned into procedure.


The pedant in all of us loves to make guidelines, rubrics, checklists, worksheets, mission statements, instructions, directives, standards , criteria, minimal requirements, qualifications and certifications.


Any procedure can be turned into a process that must be nailed down in multiple “steps.”   Organizational culture naturally wants uniformity, which is not itself a bad thing. The problem is that the folks who write the rules seem to self-select, forming groups who are all too willing to “paper” the rest of us.

Alas, this compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists motivated to reverse the process. So organizational culture typically embraces a snowballing accumulation of regulations.  All of the accumulating pixels and paper serve as evidence of high productivity.

Even college professors aren’t immune from this tendency, especially when setting up rules defining the  work status of their colleagues. The pedant in all of us loves to make guidelines, rubrics, checklists, worksheets, mission statements, instructions, directives, standards , criteria, minimal requirements, qualifications and certifications. People who might better spend their time on scholarship often drift into generating handbooks of rules for even the most simple of professional tasks, such as observing a younger colleague’s teaching. The arc of a college teacher’s professional career is now tracked, classified, quantified, compared against a rubric, assessed by insiders, assessed by outsiders, tested with online questionnaires, burdened with filings to outside agencies, and itemized in reports to higher-ups. How lucky Albert Einstein was to find refuge not exactly at Princeton University, but at the more innovative Institute for Advanced Study next door.

                  Kenneth Burke

Another temporary resident at the the Institute–a haven for free thinkers–was rhetorician Kenneth Burke, who once described the tendency to over-produce regulatory flotsam as “the bureaucratization of the imaginative.” It’s a perfect phrase. Reining in creativity by “regularizing” work simplifies organizational life, but has a deadening effect on innovators and all of us who must negotiate our way through the labyrinth-like rules thought up by the organizational mind. In effect, the rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us, too often leading to the redefinition of success as compliance rather than initiative.