Response to Burke's "Semantic and Poetic Meaning"

I recently promised a response to Kenneth Burke's "Semantic and Poetic Meaning," from The Philosophy of Literary Form, and because I created an appetite for the response in your mind, dear reader, I shall now complete the form and fulfill your desire. (Ugh, that was cheesy, but I couldn't resist!) I responded to this prompt:

Toward the end of “Semantic and Poetic Meaning,” Burke comments on the relationship of Shakespeare to his villain Iago in Othello. Explain what he says. How does this example relate to the thesis or ideas presented in the essay? Is this an example of a Burkean irrelevant tangent?

Semantic meaning cannot account for poetry, motivated speech, sociopolitical context, the speaker-audience relationship, irony, attitude, implication, or moral significance. For example, the utterance “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?” has a very specific meaning for us. To understand that question fully, we must understand the chain of events leading to the September 11 attacks, the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Bush administration's rhetorical “war on terror,” in which they declared the existence of an "Axis of Evil" and claimed they knew for certain that several countries were in possession of weapons of mass destruction, including Iraq. We would have to know that Hans Blix conducted an investigation to try to find the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that he has not succeeded in finding them so far. We would have to know that “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?” is a motivated utterance—left-leaning citizens and “doves” repeatedly ask that rhetorical question in an accusatory manner, already knowing the answer.

Burke characterizes this social significance of meaning as “poetic meaning.” He offers several examples of the difference between semantic meaning and poetic meaning (as we discussed in class, he is saying that poetic meaning is “different from, or other than, or even, if you want, less than, but not antithetical to” semantic meaning (p. 143)). Burke argues that “[t]he semantic ideal would attempt to get a description by the elimination of attitude. The poetic ideal would attempt to attain a full moral act by attaining a perspective atop all the conflicts of attitude” (p. 147-48). I would argue that “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?”, while not literary language proper, is an adequate example of poetic meaning.

That being said, Burke relies heavily on literature to support his point, and his use of Othello is a particularly strong example, decidedly not a “Burkean irrelevant tangent.” He claims on page 164 that the semantic ideal “fosters, sometimes explicitly, sometimes by implication, the notion that one may comprehensively discuss human and social events in a nonmoral vocabulary, and that perception itself is a nonmoral act.” It is this audience perception that Burke focuses upon in his discussion of Shakespeare's relationship with Iago. Burke states that Iago is “evidence of Shakespeare's moral depth,” which at first one might interpret as Burke's invoking the intentional fallacy (the assumption that one should, when analyzing literature, privilege what the author intended to communicate over reader response, and more broadly the close association between an author and his or her work, as if the work cannot stand alone). It's not that, though. I would argue that Burke is talking not just about the relationship between Iago and Shakespeare, but the relationships among Shakespeare, Iago, the other characters in the play, and the audience/reader. When Iago says, “For Michael Cassio, I dare be sworn I think that he is honest,” and then later when he warns Othello,

O beware, my lord, of jealousy.

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock

The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss

Who, certain of his fate, loves not the wronger;

But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o'er

Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet fondly loves!

it is obvious that Iago's motives are sinister, but Othello takes him at his word. The audience is aware of the irony and identifies with Othello while hating Iago, the smiling villain; in other words, they take a moral stance; they are involved in the moral act of the language uttered. As Burke claims, perception is a moral act. I believe that is what he is trying to say here, and that such perception is an integral part of poetic meaning and human use of language.


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