Burke’s Program – Living vs. Dead Discourse

Jasper Neel’s Aristotle’s Voice, Coleridge’s essays on the Method, Burke’s Terministic Screens, and now Burke’s Program all talk about living discourse vs.  dead discourse.


[The artist’s] innovations today must be, in some way, the humanistic or cultural counterpart of the external changes brought about by industrialism, or mechanization.

Kenneth Burke


I think it is the point of all of these talk about the same thing because it matters.  Obviously it matters, but the real question becomes: Why does it matter?

In the past few weeks, I have been struggling with the idea of agency.  That’s for another post, but I define agency as the ability to exert some power over your situation.  Another way to put it is to make your own decisions regardless of what others are telling you.

So, I wonder if these four different texts could be brought back to the idea of agency.  I’ll try and see if I can make the point make sense, though I will not make any promises.

I almost wonder if dead discourse isn’t the lack of agency.  The lack of having a voice that is your own because you must be professional and thus begin to adopt the writing characteristics of the academics, and thus have dead language.  So, it is basically conforming to the mainstream society.  It is dead not because it was dead, but because it is not the author’s authorial voice, but a voice that was forced upon them, thus strangling the life out of their work.

Living discourse is the presence of the authorial voice.  The presence of this authorial voice proves that the author has a choice, and therefore agency.

But, now I have to ask myself, if the author is given a choice between living and dead discourse and they choose dead discourse, don’ they still have agency since they had a choice?  I am reminded of a post I made a while ago reviewing an article that said parents were not given full information about their children with Down’s Syndrome, they were just told, “It’s terrible” and all of the bad things that were given.  So, I would like to expand on my definition of agency.

Agency is the ability to choose, but it must be an informed decision where arguments from both sides are heard and understood.  Therefore, if a person chooses dead discourse because that is all that they know how to do, then it is not agency.  From a teacher perspective, we need to help them understand the differences between living and dead discourse in writing and help them find their authorial voice before we let them decide.

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