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Day 252 – On Putting Things In Order – Part 1

This article is a three part series on another philosopher that jacked me up – Kenneth Burke. You most likely have not heard of him; however, he shows up all over the place. I first learned of him while studying communications in college, but he will also show up in other disciplines. Before we begin we must start with one of his most famous poems:

On Putting Things in Order:

File this, throw out that.

Alert the Secretariat

In re: each claim and caveat

To better serve the Cause of the Alphabet

Throw out this, file that.

File this, throw that out,

We know beyond all doubt

how Perfect Order reconciles –

And now throw out the files.

Kenneth Burke was an oddball, indeed. One of those typical stories of someone disaffected with the learning process. He started college but did not finish. Now, his theories are central to literary studies, communication theory, social studies, and even some critical dramatic theory. My favorite books of his are the Motives books. “A Grammar of Motives”  and a “Rhetoric of Motives” sit in a place of honor on my bookshelf in my office.

He is most noted for his “all the world is a stage” motif, which emphasizes that our lives are dramatic actions in which we can analyze our motives through the five core elements of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. I first got invested in Burke when I had to do a paper on the Rhetoric behind Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. It was there that I began to conceive of the notion that language acts as our primary filter for how we perceive reality. Through this lens, I was able to understand how the simplistic idealogy of pre-WWII Germany was adopted with acceptance, albeit there were many critics at the time.

Language is powerful. I may end up spending the later years of my life focusing entirely on linguistics. We have no concept of how powerful the symbolic action behind letters, characters, words, and imagery is in shaping meaning. Burke toys with the Nietzschean concept that language creates conscious thought and not the other way around. The pressure to communicate is what caused our species to advance, which brings a whole new meaning to the writings found in the early book of Genesis.

Burke defines us as a species, as the only creature that uses symbolic action to represent meaning and thereby the only one to learn to create classification schemes. Now that I am in a business that is primarily concerned with data labeling, tagging, identifying interesting data, and applying governance and other priorities to processing this data, I fully understand the meaning behind his poem. We truly are cursed to spend eternity trying to organize and file our data into perfect systems, only to throw it all out again when the data becomes useless, or we are no longer around.

Consider the platform we are on, the language being used, and the symbols being deployed. We are definitely, in the words of Burke, a symbol using and misusing animal.

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