Sunday, November 20, 2011

Burke's Web of Symbols and the Need for Terministic Screens

While we did not get a chance to delve too deep into discussion regarding Burke's "Terministic Screens," I found his viewpoints on symbolic action and the dramatistic approach to language particularly interesting in terms of the re/presentation paradox. Specifically, Burke's analysis of language as dramatic (or action related) rather than simply "scientistic" (or conveying informaton) is one that I would like to take some time discussing here on the blog. While reading this piece, I began to question how language is used as a representation of action rather than merely meaning something to a reader. For Burke, this is a central claim in describing the dramatistic function of language, or "language as act" and further language as symbolic-action.

Language is a web of symbolic action, it initiates action rather than simply representing meaning. But what does this imply about language and how it functions in culture and communication? While literary theory and language was the theorists focus, his ideas regarding language as action oriented had much broader implications. Burke approached language as "equipment for living" a tool that is a necessity for communication and further, the construction of reality for human beings. Caught in a web of symbols, language serves to form our perceptions, an active agent that underscores our understanding of the world around us. Burke asserts that reality has been mostly constructed through this symbol system. "What is our 'reality' for today but all this clutter of symbols about the past....And however important to us is the tiny sliver of reality each of us has experienced firsthand, the whole overall 'picture' is but a construct of our symbol systems" (Burke 48). This is quite a claim, but for Burke it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch. Language does not simply represent meaning, it is a system of symbols that is accountable for our entire understanding of reality outside of perception. Woah.

As Burke states over and over, humans are a symbol using animal. Not simply in motion, but in action. But in this web of the symbol system, how does the individual navigate this web and sort out these symbols, many of which can mean different things in different contexts? This is where the "terministic screen" comes into play for Burke. Similar to a frame, the terministic screen serves to direct our attention within a certain context. "We need terministic screens, since we cant say anything without the use of terms; whatever terms we use, they necessarily constitute a corresponding kind of screen; and any such screen necessarily directs the attention to one field rather than another" (50). The screen serves as a map, directing the individual to the proper action of the term used. Without the map, language could not be a representation of a symbol or an action. Without terministic screens, the symbol using animal would be lost in the web of symbols.


  1. I like your idea of terministic screens as providers of meaning in a "web of symbols." Burke's discussion of terministic screens makes me think of a philosophy class that I took in high school. I didn't take much away from the class, but I do remember that we talked a lot about the subjectivity of perception, and the way that different people provided different lenses for interpreting the world based on their personal experiences. It seems that Burke is providing similar ideas about language. He states that "the nature of our terms affects the nature of our observations" (46), implying that the type of language that we use in a particular situation affects the way that we perceive the situation. So language is necessary to our conception of the world, like you said above.

    Burke goes on to state that "many of the 'observations' are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made" (46). So not only does language affect our perception, creating different lenses for us to view the world depending on how particular terminologies are constructed, but language has a greater degree of power in that it can actually affect the fact of our observations themselves. In other words, we observe partly because we have terms that prescribe observation. This all links back to what you were saying about the way that language provides meaning to the reality in which we exist. To say it another way, language creates our reality, and cannot be separated from that reality.

  2. Daniel,

    I really like the claim you pulled out from page forty-eight because, as you mention, it is quite a claim. When I first read through this piece and was attempting to make meaning of it, I immediately took note of one of Burke’s first statements: “the power of language to define and describe may be viewed as derivative” (Burke 44). As we have discussed in this class countless a countless amount of times, language is a highly necessary factor of communication that has the ability to alter and determine a person’s understanding of any concept based on his or her own individual experiences and knowledge. I feel that this greatly ties into what you are saying about language serving ‘to form our perceptions’ in order to help us make sense of the world.

    You elude to the section of the piece where Burke pays specific attention to the difference between moving and acting; I feel like this is a really interesting section. He notes that, “whether or not we are just things in motion, we think of one another…as persons. And the difference between a thing and a person is that the one merely moves whereas the other acts” (Burke 53). This also seems like a relatively large claim to be making. Based on the originally account of the power of language, it seems that he is arguing that the primary difference between humans objects, or humans and animals is the human ability to utilize symbols and terms in order to explain understanding and consequentially act on their understanding, Regardless of correct interpretation, as we have noted before that truth is in fact relative in many cases, one’s ability to speak and persuade can actually be seen as the power of language, in Burke’s term at least.


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