Tag Archives: Kenneth Burke

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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  Of course, paper has often been replaced by online documents forms.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.

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Burke’s ‘Definition’ of Us All, in Five Clauses

                     Kenneth Burke

Rarely has a writer so economically represented the forces that act on the mind. 

Kenneth Burke was a rhetorician, poet and public scholar. The New Jersey resident had a keen sense of the centrality of language to human thought, making him what W. H. Auden described as “unquestionably the most brilliant and suggestive critic now writing in America.” (1941).  To this day the pull of his ideas is still immense.

Cognitive psychologists remind us that consciousness arises from language.  Burke went much further.  For him, language isn’t the residue of some other experience, it frequently is the experience.   If we ask what it means to live as sentient creatures, Burke’s compelling answer is that we are driven by labels used by and applied to us.  We live is a sea of verbal constructions.  In his words, as laid out in the third clause of his “definition of man,” language is the “instrument of our own making” that separates us from our natural condition.  And so it goes in Burke’s evocative five part “definition.”  We live the most meaningful parts of our lives in the symbolic world.

This is how he expressed his perspective in Language as Symbolic Action (University of California Press, 1966), 16.

1.Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-                  misusing) animal,

2. Inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative),

3. Separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making,

4. Goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order),

5. And rotten with perfection.

There is a lifetime of exploration contained in these five defining features, and even a journal devoted to this prodigious thinker.

Other animals communicate.  But they communicate in signs.  We connect using a broad mixture of signs and inherited symbols.  If you don’t speak Norwegian, the language will be a mystery.  Of course, a Norwegian stop sign can still be understood, as can most Norwegian faces.  But the linguistic universe that permeates the culture offers few visual clues about what they mean.  And since symbol making is a constant human project in any culture, the words we choose are existential. Stories, tracts, reports and conversations define the common boundaries of our world.  Think of the descriptors that others have used about you and how deeply some of them have burned into your memory.


Behaviorists  in his day sought to de-emphasize what Burke saw as obvious: that symbolic action is the representative human gesture.


The great threshold of language is why schools are structured to advance students mostly on their literacy skills.  Language is the gateway to experience.  Language shapes perception.

In his first clause Burke was pushing back against the reduction of human “behavior” to what can be physically observed.  That was the fools-errand of the behaviorists  in his day who sought to de-emphasize the obvious: that symbolic action is the representative human gesture. 

The second clause adds a wonderful insight.  We are not only symbol-makers and users, but the very act of expression through language makes possible a cognitive life that includes what is not or what should not be.  We are the inventors of the negative. Language allows the construction of the past and predictions about the future.  It makes it possible to imagine worlds present and missing.  Most dramatically, consciousness of the negative means that we are alone in the natural world as creatures who can imagine their past and future.  Bless their hearts, our pets live in the present.  But our use of language as a tool of consciousness means that we carry the heavier baggage of knowing we have a finite life.

It is a keystone of ordinary language that it does more than name.  It often judges as well.  And so any practical understanding of our communication essence must include the rhetoric is infused with terms of judgement: words that praise and blame, words that suggest who is up and who is down.  Ordinary language is hierarchical in ways that the languages of mathematics or programming almost never are. It would be odd, indeed, if a person “liked” the number 2 more than the number 4.  Mathematical terms do not have what rhetoricians call “tendency.”  Mathematical terms say nothing about their user’s feelings and attitudes. But my reference to someone I know as a “jerk” or “windbag” represents a hierarchy of preferences that I carry with me.  As a symbol-user I cannot avoid marking my attitudes in word choices. Our personal rhetoric leaves impressions as clear as footprints in fresh snow.

As to the odd coda, “rotten with perfection.” The resources of language are equally available to enlighten or deceive, help us ‘know’ or distract us from ‘knowing.’  Our miraculous capacity for language gives us all of the tools we need to be disingenuous.  And some of us are far too good at it.