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On the Value of Cultural Products

Based on our readings in Bronner’s text, in a capitalist society all things are cultural products that can be commodified. Thus language is corrupted to serve the needs of the commodity form and must be critiqued and revised, and citizens must be made aware of language’s use as a tool of the commodity form (Bronner 47). According to Richter, Kenneth Burke’s philosophical vision was that language and literature are “forms of symbolic action” (633). In other terms, language could become a method of achieving agency, “a vehicle of resistance” (Bronner 47). As symbolic action, language and literature function as cultural products that carry abstract value and, at the same time, agency. Thus, for Burke, the person who merely reads a self-help book on success is actually experiencing success; the reading is the action, the success, and makes the reader an agent in his own awareness and in being (easily) successful (Burke 648) through his dealings with the symbolism of language, language that embeds cultural value (Burke 647). We see this in the creation of grammars in the eighteenth century, when conditions coalesced so that the Industrial Revolution and the imperialism of the British Empire created not only an emerging middle class that desired social mobility but the means to achieve that mobility by consuming grammars that taught how to speak and write properly (cf. Childree’s “Annotated Bibliography on Eighteenth Century English Grammars: The Creation of Culture.”).

Burke’s “Literature as Equipment for Living” provides a model for classifying such social phenomena as the self-help book, the grammar book, and even bawdy jokes (Burke 649) based upon “[s]ocial structures [that] give rise to ‘type’ situations” (645). After discussing the classification of proverbs, Burke discusses the classification of “proverbs writ large” (qtd. 646) and ponders how literature is a strategy. This idea of strategy relates to an origin within the writer of being divided from other areas within society. This division may be the result of capitalism’s mechanistic approach to speed and efficiency or it may be a result of “the division of faculties in our universities …[as]…exact replica[s] of the way in which God himself divided up the universe.” (649). Needless,t he division requires the writer to break “down the barriers erected about literature as a specialized pursuit” (649). Man’s need to name, to codify (see the eighteenth century codification of English, for instance), situations (648) so as to to attempt to create unity allows him to temporarily deal his division, but it also leads to his isolation. Burke’s method is to analyze an author’s language, his “grouping by situation” (649), to determine the contemporaneous periods (648) which also deal with the subject literature’s type to determine a “strategy of strategies” or the all-encompassing type (649) that names man as Man.

In contrast, Lussier analyzes Coleridge’s method of meditation on art as a “textual condition” which allows energy to achieve “statis,” freezing a particular, to use Burke’s word, type, for reflection (Lussier 2). It is in this static reflection that “Coleridge’s new poetics” (4), representing “a nonverbal and unrepresentable…realm” (5), allow the reader to determine a literary work’s “categories [of systemization]” (qtd. 6), or language symbols that are “timeless, non-historical, or contemporaneous” (Burke 649) and which can be divided across the areas of specialization (659) to determine new categories. Thus, Coleridge’s New Poetics and Burke’s Naming allow for interdisciplinary research (Burke 649; Lussier 9) and the opportunity to allow a text to reveal “meaning and being” (Lussier 10), or the Philosophy of Being, the Philosophy of Becoming, and the Philosophy of Bin (Burke 649) if one prefers Burke’s “joycings” (Richter 636), so as to allow the mind and brain to reconcile that which in society and language divide by categorizing and codifying into a supposedly perfected order (Burke 634). Literature, for Burke and Coleridge, then allows Man to express beyond language that which is “untranslatable” (Lussier 13), viz., the underlying cultural symbols of society.

But this is the abstraction of what a critical theory should do. According to Bronner, critical theory needs to move beyond identifying that which is untranslatable, needs to move beyond naming that which is indescribable, needs to move beyond simply talking about the world as if we did not act in the world. The task for critical theory now is to “clarify the values and interests that existing ideologies and institutions tend to hide” so that the common Man can judge and respond appropriately (Bronner 115). Part of this involves “transform[ing] ‘private troubles into public issues.’” (115). This would include evaluating not just the criticisms and ad hominem attacks I, as a liberal Christian, have received from Steadfast Conservatives in my social sphere by making these private troubles known but also evaluating the cosmopolitan, socialistic class ideals (116) I have developed so that the competition for resources, loyalty, and publicity (116) is not shattered into utopian shards (116), and so culture can by participating in a dialectic “linger at the event horizon” (Lussier 1) and reclaim what Bloch referred to as the “life-sustaining element of humanity (Bronner 107). For Bloch, this was nature, that which cannot be divided. And while I enjoy nature as an at-times refreshing and untainted element (even when it decides to send torrents through my tent during a thunderstorm - Thoreau had a small, hand-built house; I had but a permeable tent), for me it is the analysis of language that forces me to evaluate and re-evaluate the naming I have done within my social sphere. I have named, and my opponents have named, but our creating of types has yet to meet at a place where we all recognize the “contradictions existing in a variety of social spheres…carried over from one period to the next[, assuming] a new character” (Bronner 110). Our use of symbolic language (gun control, pro-choice, educational accountability) that further divides us is a result of our radically different types, our radically different means of creating those “perfect” categories, that render any attempted dialectic impossible because we no longer share the same references (Sandin).

Works Cited

Bronner, Stephen Eric. “Critical Theory: A Very Short Intorduction.” Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. “Literature as Equipment for Living.” Richter 645-649.

Childree, Heather D. “Annotated Bibliography on Eighteenth Century English Grammars: The Creation of Culture.” n.p. 5 Feb. 2016. Available from the author.

Lussier, Mark. “Romantic Abhidhamma: Meditative Structure in Coleridge’s Rhythmic Lyricism.” Arizona State University. n.d. PDF file.

Richter, David H. “Kenneth Burke (1897-1993).” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 3rd edition. Boston: Bedford, 2007. 633-636. Print.

Sandin, Destin. “What I Learned from President Obama - Smarter Every Day 151.” YouTube. 31 Jan. 2016. Web. 7 Feb. 2016. <>.

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