Notes on Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change (1935)

This page contains my bibliographic, biographical, and other reference notes on Kenneth Burke's first critical monograph, Permanence and Change.

Bibliographic Information

Original Publication

Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (New York: New Republic Press, 1935).

Other Editions


Reviews (chronological listing)

Commentary (chronological listing)

Biographical Notes

1. In “Curriculum Criticum,” Burke dates the writing of Permanence and Change to 1932-33, that is, following the January 1932 publication of Towards a Better Life. These were difficult years for Burke, which included the breakup of his marriage with Lily Batterham (married in 1919) and subsequent marriage to her sister, Elizabeth. And according to Paul Jay (editor of the Burke-Cowley correspondence), the divorce along with personal economic problems exacerbated by the Depression left Burke “on the edge of a nervous breakdown by the end of 1932” (153). Burke published very little during this period, only three reviews; and his correspondence with Cowley drops off for an entire year (from 04 Jun 1932 to 04 Jun 1933).

2. The first reference to Permanence and Change in the Burke-Cowley correspondence appears in Burke’s letter of 04 Jun 1932:

“Just what do you have against Communism?” Bob [novelist Robert Cantwell (1908-78)] asked me last night -- and I had never thought of it so bluntly, but my answer was blunt: “Absolutely nothing.” And then, in the night, I awoke and asked myself the same question, and discovered the following qualifications: “I am not a joiner of societies, I am a literary man. I can only welcome Communism by converting it into my own vocabulary. I am, in the deepest sense, a translator. I go on translating, even if I must but translate English into English. My book [Permanence and Change] will have the communist objectives, and the communist tenor, but the approach will be the approach that seems significant to me. Those who cannot recognize a concept, even [if] it is their concept, unless this concept is stated in exactly the words they use to state it, will think my book something else. (202)

3. Exactly one year later, in a letter to Cowley dated 04 Jun 1933, Burke sketches the principle concerns of Permanence and Change:

What is to be our job for the summer? Every time I try to state it, I state it differently . . . Pre-evolutionary thought naively overstressed the constant aspect of human society -- evolutionary thought compensatorily overstressed the shifting aspect -- a machinery of documentation and logic now seems available for making our century distinctive as the merger of these two principles. In particular it leads, I think, with the help of Ogden and Richards’ [The Meaning of Meaning (1923)] stressing of the nature of symbols, to a conversion technique (violà the catholicistie) for showing that many disputes were terminological rather than basic, disputes over the symbols of reference rather than over the objects of reference. This might lead (I have tentative notes on this aspect) to a restating of the notion of “The Way,” holding that there has ever been only one technique of the “good life,” and that it has been restated, at various times in history, within the terminology stressing uppermost at the time . . . This would seem to involve, at bottom, a preserving of the old distinction between “particulars” and “essence,” a point on which I am not yet wholly contented. The placing of “prose” and “poetry,” of “economic cunning” as against the “religious,” must be amply considered. Fundamentally, I think my point can be stated to the effect that all the resources of prose thought must be developed in order that the poetic can be given its only genuine safeguards. That is: only a thorough body of secular criticism, secular thought “carried all the way round the circle” can properly equip a society against the misuse of its most desirable aspects, the poetic or religious aspects. This is, I believe, practically the same as Eliot’s position. I believe that Eliot is right in everything except his exile, which is a very momentous thing to be wrong in. He is able to begin too far along, with too many refinements -- we must begin with rougher things. And there is a certain advantage in our requirement, for I think that these rougher things should never be neglected, as they can so easily be, once it has become cheap to hire servants to empty your bizbod for you. A cultural scheme that does not empty its own bizbod is a house erected upon the sands. There is then so great a differential to be supplied by the imagination that the imagination often fails to supply it. (204-05)

More on Ogden and Richards’s theory of symbols . . .

4. In this letter to Cowley (16 Jun 1933), Burke focuses on what we would call the “theoretical” perspective of Permanence and Change:

Fundamentally, our differences in emphasis, classification, etc. seem to derive from the following initial or informing distinction in purpose: You are trying to write an interpretation of certain cultural trends; I am trying to write on the process of interpretation. The criticism of religion, said Marx, is the beginning of all criticism. And you rightly criticize art as an aspect of religion. But note the unintended joker in Marx’s statement: He tells us what is the beginning of all criticism. What might be the end? Surely someone has said, or will say, that the end of all criticism is the criticism of criticism.

Thus, one must try (if it is the criticism of criticism he would write) to rehash the whole beginning of orientation, of imaginative and ideological symbolism, of “meanings” in their double function of both guiding and misguiding us. One tries to find how meanings arise. One notes that their origin brings one close to the springs of “propriety” which are found in religion and art. And there are many situations in which, to meet some new purpose, we must do violence to an older scheme of propriety. Of course, this point of view omits the “escape” concept entirely, accepting it as natural and normal that people should try to escape from dissatisfactory conditions, but holding that certain systems of meaning may misguide them in their choice of means of escape. It is, I think, clear that if one approaches the nineteenth century from this point of view, he sees it as enormously and ingeniously preoccupied with exactly the problem that should have preoccupied it: namely, the problem of reinterpretation, transvaluation, new meanings. To call some of its attempts “escapes” merely beaus you happen to consider them “wrong” would be exactly like calling one of your first drafts an escape, once you had reached your last revision. (206-07)

5. As he completes Permanence and Change, Burke writes to Cowley (09 Jun 1934) about his early plans of developing his work:

What next? I think that, once this work is out of the way, I shall lay off “first principles” for a while and go back to straight literary criticism, perhaps reviewing the modern scene in the light of my formulas to date. I guess Americans simply will not read philosophy as such -- and since I want to be read, I must again bestir myself to find the rephrasing of my position that might right the bell. I also think of planning, for work at odd moments, a kind of research-work epic, attempting to establish in four parts and a fifth, the specific imagery, in customs and aims, behind my schema of the “four rationalizations, magic, religion, science, and communism.” I see ways of making the thing quite picturesque (particularly by stating so many long discredited doctrines as thought they were true, and by interlarding the dogmas wit narratives that illustrate the concomitant social texture). The great technical problem to be met is that of a central protagonist. This protagonist should, I think, be writer-and-audience in one, rather than some perennial figure forever being reborn (as the latter solution would suggest overtones which I do not want to suggest). But for the life of me, I cannot see the novel: I can think of poetry, or I can think of critical prose, but I cannot think of that bastard intermediary, the novel. (209-10)

6. Approximately one year after the publication of Permanence and Change, Burke writes to Cowley (27 Feb 1936), proposing a debate to be published in The New Republic on the value of Freud’s metapsychology for social theory. (Cowley was literary editor of The New Republic from 1929 to 1941.)

Official statement from the P & C public relations council.

Text: “Psychoanalysis as a social theory . . . is fundamentally opposed to Marxism, and no poet or prose writer has ever succeeded in making a synthesis of the two.”

Little David modestly offers on this point to do battle.

Little David proposes:

(1) Let MC first convert his assertion of “fundamental opposition” into a completely rationalized account. (In other words, let MC fill out this assertion with all the filling-out he considers to be necessary.)

(2) Let him turn this over to yours truly, for a reply of exactly the same length.

The issue is a burning one. I know of nothing, in the purely critical field, more burning of the NR [New Republic]. (Especially inasmuch as many of its readers are old psychoanalysts in training, with economics on top.) For my own part, furthermore, I feel that P & C offers a completely adequate account of the devices whereby Marxian and psychoanalytic fields can be brought together—and I should be happy to engage in honorable combat with you, to see whether I could prove this or whether you could prove your opposite assertion. (Needless to say, I should not have to make specific references to the book at all. I should simply use in my reply to you some of the concepts formulated there, and attempt to show why they function as coordinates for putting psychoanalysis and economics together, and for putting them together in ways that lead to the Marxist alignment of foes and friends.) (210-11)

Textual Notes

1. Epigraph: From Alfred North Whitehead's Nature and Life (Chicago, 1934). Whitehead (1861-1947) was a British mathematician, philosopher of science, and, at this time, a professor at Harvard. Burke reviewed Nature and Life for the New Republic in November 1934; see “The Universe Alive,” review of Nature and Life, by A. N. Whitehead, New Republic 81 (November 1934): 26.

2. Thorstein Veblen (1957-1929) was an American economist, social theorist, and prominent critic of government policies during World War I and its aftermath. His idea of "trained incapacity" appears in "The Machine Industry," the final chapter of The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts (New York: Macmillan, March 1914; New edition: New York: B. W. Huebsch, July 1918).

Key Terms

occupational psychosis
From John Dewey's "Interpretation of Savage Mind," Psychological Review 9 (1902): 217-230. Although Dewey does not use the phrase "occupational psychosis," he does use both words in

If we search in any social group for the special functions to which mind is thus relative, occupations at once suggest themselves.[5] Occupations determine the fundamental modes of activity, and hence control the formation and use of habits. These habits, in turn, are something more than practical and overt. 'Apperceptive masses' and associational tracts of necessity conform to the dominant activities. The occupations determine the chief modes of satisfaction the standards of success and failure. Hence they furnish the working classifications and definitions of value ; they control the desire processes. Moreover, they decide the sets of objects and relations that are important, and thereby provide the content or material of attention, and the qualities that are interestingly significant. The directions given to mental life thereby extend to emotional and intellectual characteristics. So fundamental and pervasive is the group of occupational activities that it affords the scheme or pattern of the structural organization of mental traits. Occupations integrate special elements into a functioning whole.

Because the hunting life differs from, say, the agricultural, in the sort of satisfactions and ends it furnishes, in the objects to which it requires attention, in the problems it sets for reflection and deliberation, as well as in the psycho-physic coordinations it stimulates and selects, we may well speak, and without metaphor, of the hunting psychosis or mental type. And so of the pastoral, the military, the trading, the manually productive (or manufacturing) occupations and so on. As a specific illustration of the standpoint and method, I shall take the hunting vocation, and that as carried on by the Australian aborigines. I shall try first to describe its chief distinguishing and then to show how the mental pattern developed is carried over into various activities, customs and products, which on their face, have nothing to do with the hunting life. If a controlling influence of this sort can be made out -- if it can be shown that art, war, marriage, etc., tend to be psychologically assimilated to the pattern developed in the hunting vocation, we shall thereby get an important method for the interpretation of social institutions and cultural resources -- a psychological method for sociology. (219-20)

trained incapacity
From the final chapter of Thorstein Veblen's The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts (1914; New edition: New York: B. W. Huebsch, July 1918).

Of course, all this working at cross purposes is not altogether due to trained incapacity on the part of the several contestants to appreciate the large and general requirements of the industrial situation; perhaps it is not even chiefly due to such inability, but rather to an habitual, and conventionally righteous disregard of other than pecuniary considerations. It would doubtless appear that a trained inability to apprehend any other than the immediate pecuniary bearing of their manoeuvres accounts for a larger share in the conduct of the businessmen who control industrial affairs than it does in that of their workmen, since the habitual employment of the former holds them more rigorously and consistently to the pecuniary valuation of whatever passes, under their hands; and the like should be true only in a higher degree of those who have to do exclusively with the financial side of business. The state of the industrial arts requires that these several factors should cooperate intelligently and without reservation, with an eye single to the exigencies of this modern wide-sweeping technological system; but their habitual addiction to pecuniary rather than technological standards and considerations leaves them working at cross purposes. So also their (pecuniary) interests are at cross purposes; and since these interests necessarily rule in any pecuniary culture, they must decide the line of conduct for each of the several factors engaged. (347-48)

Works Cited

Last update: 17-Feb-04

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