Tag Archives: Kenneth Burke

‘Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Worse’

The rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often rule-makers measure success in terms of compliance rather than initiative.  

I am optimistic by nature.  But that optimism doesn’t extend to organizational life.  As time passes, even very good organizations seem to have natural tendencies to layer their rules and procedures with ever more layers.  Rules and procedures are rarely streamlined.  Instead, they are supplemented.  If policies and guidelines are burdensome now, just wait a few years.  They will be even more numerous.

This tendency is equivalent to the process of ‘lawyering up’ that has happened in many corporations and institutions over the last decades.  As the law professor and trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz noted, a common litigation strategy is “papering the other side to death.” He meant, of course, that an 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 more the other side is papered, the more it is encumbered by procedures and rules.

I’ve written about this “papering” process before. In hindsight it seems as durable an organizational impulse as any. Even though paper has been replaced by online files, there seems to be a natural tendency to bureaucratize even the simplest processes, ostensibly to be “uniform.” Indeed, our organizational life seems to thrive on hiring and promoting rule-makers: policy specialists, evaluators, consultants, compliance officers, lawyers, professional writers, ethics officers, assistant managers, quality-assurance advisors, contract law specialists and others–some with the kind of obsessive-compulsive tendencies that would be recognized in a mental health facility.

Rules function in part to mystify others into compliance.  It seems their attractiveness comes from the very human need to impose behavioral norms on others. I used to think of a bureaucracy’s love of forms functioned for its own sake.  But it seems more likely that this feature of modern life flows from an interest in exercising power and control.  That need blinds us to the advantages of individual initiative.  “I’ll get the task done on time” has too often been replaced by the question, “What rubric should I follow?”  The quick jump to deference to procedure is a smoother pathway to organizational success.  And who does not like to suggest that their procedures ought to be followed by everybody?

The compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists to reverse the process.

Organizational culture naturally seeks uniformity, which is not always always 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.  And so most of my colleagues spend more of their working time completing forms, documenting their work, submitting to endless reviews, and attending less-than-essential meetings where more procedures can be dreamed up. My campus has 110 active  ‘memorandas of agreement’ that faculty and staff are supposed to follow to the letter. A colleague in health care similarly reports that paperwork from the insurance industry is turning into an endless tsunami of requests for even more documentation.  Who has time for patients?

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.  New procedures stack up like layers of ocean sediment.

The rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke called this tendency to over-produce regulatory flotsam “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. In effect, the rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often this impulse leads to the redefinition of professional success as compliance rather than initiative.


Paterson is remarkable for its director’s ambition to build a story around a character’s interiority.

There is something surprising and satisfying about Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, which chronicles the creative life of an everyman poet.  The film follows its dominant character through a series of routine work days.  He’s a bus driver, using the freedom granted by the predictability of his route to work out lines of poetry that are committed to paper at the end of the day.

Each morning he leaves his small bungalow and his artist wife for the short walk to the bus barn.  Even on his feet he’s a natural observer; and Jarmusch gets out of the way to let us see the modest city that reveals itself every day. Once underway, it’s mostly the driver’s ears that take over, catching the conversations of the children and seniors who depend on his NJ Transit bus. He also absorbs the lives of locals in a neighborhood bar he visits after dinner. It’s part of his routine of taking the couple’s English bulldog for a walk.  (Marvin was played by Nellie, who won the Palm Dog Award at Cannes).

If this all sounds like watching paint dry, you’d be surprised.

The film’s title has at least three meanings. The young driver’s name is Paterson.  The town he lives and works in is also Paterson, in Northern New Jersey.  And the name happens to be the title of William Carlos Williams’ most consequential book of poetry, which sits on Paterson’s desk.

Actor Adam Driver is skillful enough to let us see Paterson’s mind absorb his world. In this story there will be no crashes, no hold ups, or any break in the loving bond between himself and Laura. Instead, Jarmusch focuses on the linear thinking of Driver’s character, a man intent on working out his thoughts. Paterson doesn’t even carry a cell phone, which he perceptively sees as a distraction and “a leash.”

Periodically Jarmusch lets us see the results of Paterson’s verbal invention in his own scrawl. It unobtrusively slips under the film’s images in a corner of the screen. The lines contributed by writer Ron Padgett are very much in the Williams tradition: an economical free-verse style.

Motion pictures generally work from the outside in, using action rather than thought as motivating elements.

Here’s the interesting thing. Paterson is remarkable for its willingness to build the film around a character’s interiority.  Films often show us a great deal, but usually starve our interest in understanding a figure’s state of mind. Motion pictures generally work from the outside in, using actions rather than thought as motivating elements. Actors may want internal motivations to bring their characters to life. But directors naturally want something interesting to show.

And there’s the rub. Poetry is frequently about passing impressions, layers of revelatory consciousness that are eventually made audible.  As a form, it’s not necessarily fragile, but it is often subtle. A director has to be inventive and confident to put stories on the screen that build out from the inner life of a poet.

                     Burke and Williams

Interestingly, Williams was a friend of Kenneth Burke, perhaps the most influential of all American rhetorical scholars. When he visited Burke’s farm in Andover New Jersey the two men—Williams, a physician and poet of the ordinary, and Burke, the grand theorist of all things symbolic—would sometimes goad each other. Williams might gently mock Burke about his “damned theorizing.” But both thrived in the same realm of words and thought.  Burke was driven by the desire to create a grand theory of everything, as revealed in our symbol-using.  Williams often sought to record what his senses were telling him about about his busy life in the Garden State. That a film would seek to enter this world of verbal action is a reminder of the kind of transformative story an observant filmmaker can tell.