The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison

The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison

by Beth Eddy

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The Rites of Identity argues that Kenneth Burke was the most deciding influence on Ralph Ellison's writings, that Burke and Ellison are firmly situated within the American tradition of religious naturalism, and that this tradition--properly understood as religious--offers a highly useful means for considering contemporary identity and mitigating

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The Rites of Identity argues that Kenneth Burke was the most deciding influence on Ralph Ellison's writings, that Burke and Ellison are firmly situated within the American tradition of religious naturalism, and that this tradition--properly understood as religious--offers a highly useful means for considering contemporary identity and mitigating religious conflict.

Beth Eddy adds Burke and Ellison to a tradition of religious naturalism that traces back to Ralph Waldo Emerson but received its most nuanced expression in the work of George Santayana. Through close readings of the essays and fiction of Burke and Ellison, Eddy shows the extent to which their cultural criticisms are intertwined. Both offer a naturalized understanding of piety, explore the psychological and social dynamics of scapegoating, and propose comic religious resources. And both explicitly connect these religious categories to identity, be it religious, racial, national, ethnic, or gendered. Eddy--arguing that the most socially damaging uses of religious language and ritual are connected to the best uses that such language has to offer--finds in Burke and Ellison ways to manage this precarious situation and to mitigate religious violence through wise use of performative symbolic action.

By placing Burke and Ellison in a tradition of pragmatic thought, The Rites of Identity uncovers an antiessentialist approach to identity that serves the moral needs of a world that is constantly negotiating, performing, and ritualizing changes of identity.

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The Rites of Identity

The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison
By Beth Eddy

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-09249-2

Chapter One


The skin is a line of demarcation, a periphery, the fence, the form, the shape, the first clue to identity in a society (for instance, color in a racist society), and, in purely physical terms, the formal precondition for being human. It is a thin veil of matter separating the outside from the inside. -Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse Closed societies are now the flimsiest of illusions, for all the outsiders are demanding in. -Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity. If men were wholly and truly of one substance, absolute communication would be of man's very essence. It would not be an ideal, as it now is, partly embodied in material conditions and partly frustrated by these same conditions. -Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives

TOO OFTEN, discussions that deal with personal identity issues, whether about race, gender, religion, or nation, descend quickly into an "us" and "them" opposition that ceasesto do productive work and poisons the hopes of any participant for a satisfying resolution of conflict. Probably all of us have experienced the relief that comes from being able to get away temporarily from the conflicts we have with differing others. Playing poker with the boys on Saturday night can alleviate the ongoing domestic conflicts of married life. An Afrocentric school can educate young African Americans in a space free from the constant encroachments on self-esteem made in white supremacist environments. Churches, synagogues, and voluntary associations make space for us to have conversations and participate in activities premised upon views that we do not all share. Gentlemen's clubs provide some with a comfortable retreat. Women sometimes find all-female classrooms to be places where conversations can finally get off the ground floor without being derailed at the level of definitions of terms. Although temporary separations like these are necessary to provide respite and sanity checks for the fatigued, permanent separations, even though they may be energized by a collective spirit, lead to cultural fragmentation. On the other hand, too often the only voices calling for an end to conflict have naive expectations or envision the assimilation of one party to another one without substantial change. Identities serve both as the insignia that clothe us in uniform to others' eyes, either as friend or enemy, and as the fortresses that protect our most crucial first premises about our hopes, fears, and needs.

This book highlights the centrality of identity in Kenneth Burke's and Ralph Ellison's cultural criticism. It emphasizes the religious language in which both men cast their descriptions of the ways societies sustain, fail to sustain, and transform human identities. I aim to show the tremendous influence of Burke's ideas on Ellison and to show that influence both in Ellison's embrace of and in his criticism of those ideas. Although there are similarities in the language of the two men there are also important differences in their social perspectives.

On one level, I want to think about rhetoric. The relevant religious concern I address here is "not about God, but rather, about the way we use our words about God on each other," to quote Burke. Burke finds rhetoric and identity to be inseparable subjects; in a section of his work titled "Identity and Consubstantiality," he shows how the study of rhetoric is the study of the

ways in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another. Why "at odds," you may ask, when the titular term is "identification"? Because to begin with "identification" is, by the same token though roundabout, to confront the implications of division.

Ralph Ellison also writes, almost exclusively, about identity. His work centers on "the great mystery of identity in this country, really on the level of a religious mystery." This concern runs through his novel Invisible Man and through his essays on the novel and other American cultural forms. The mystery is this: "the puzzle of the one-and-the-many; the mystery of how each of us, despite his origin in diverse regions, with our diverse racial, cultural, religious backgrounds, speaking his own diverse idiom of the American in his own accent, is, nevertheless, American."

Kenneth Burke's identity concerns focus on symbolic action, that is, on the rites that change human identity and maintain the connections holding together the discontinuities of human existence. "Our basic principle," he states, "is our contention that all symbolism can be treated as the ritualistic naming and changing of identity." Burke's concern with rituals of rebirth, purification, and initiation should signal his potential importance to the study of religion and to the social psychology of identity. He opens up a world of local resources; as Stanley Edgar Hyman, his friend and critic, put it, a Burke reader often has "the sudden sense of a newly discovered country in his own backyard."

Both Burke and Ellison show "how greatly the 'Americanness' of American culture has been a matter of Adamic wordplay-of trying, in the interest of a futuristic dream, to impose unity upon an experience that changes too rapidly for linguistic or political exactitude. In this effort we are often less interested in what we are than in projecting what we will be." I plan to spell out the details of their mutual preoccupations with identity, religiosity, and American traditions.

I am putting forward three major claims. First, I try to show that Kenneth Burke was a major, perhaps the major, intellectual influence on Ralph Ellison. I will support this claim by presenting a substantial quantity of textual evidence that can be confirmed by anyone willing to do a close reading of the work of both men. Ellison's writing virtually drips with the language of Burke's literary and cultural criticism. To be sure, other analysts of Ellison's work have noted the influence of Burke. But no one, to my knowledge, is talking about the extent of that influence. Burke is given a footnote or a paragraph at most in book-length treatments of Ellison's work. The irony is that Burke and Ellison thought and wrote about precisely the sorts of identity formations, transformations, and preservations that help explain scholars' neglect of the connections between the two of them. Obviously, the two men have racial identity differences. But to notice a profound intellectual resemblance between the two men is not to whitewash their racial differences. It is instead to make both the differences and the similarities all the more highly charged with importance and moral ambiguity.

Second, I claim that the two men belong to an American tradition of religious naturalism and that George Santayana is an important link in the chain that takes them both back to the "parentage" of Ralph Waldo Emerson. By religious naturalism I do not mean reductive materialism, or scientism, but rather the understanding of religious traditions and experiences as naturally available to human beings without the attribution of any special supernatural powers to any human ideals. Two of the three topics that organize the structure of my investigation have been chosen to mirror Santayana's naturalistic religious emphasis on piety, spirituality, and the comic.

Third, I hope to show that this tradition has usable resources, ones rightly cast in religious language, for understanding what is currently true about human identities and differences. These same resources also help us to live gracefully within those contemporary constraints, even while imagining and negotiating toward a bit more of what ought to be true about the same. These resources grew out of a culture aspiring to be democratic-one composed from the beginning of mixed races, genders, religions, and ethnicities that all made sizable contributions to it. This American culture holds the simultaneous achievement of justice and equality to be a higher human ideal than social stability; in my view, it need offer no apology for that priority. Yet this culture at the same time holds in tension resources for acting effectively when practical necessity calls for working within conditions of social inequality and power inequity. It confronts, rather than evades, the tricky interactions between human powers and human ideals. I emphasize this American particularity, not out of any nationalistic piety toward the country where I live, but out of my own "parochial preoccupation" to adopt what I've inherited and turn it to the critical evaluation of where I am in the attempt to brighten that corner a bit.

Both Burke and Ellison highlight the unsung contribution vernacular culture makes to rites of identity in a specifically democratic society. In so doing, they help ameliorate elitist tendencies in cultural criticism and make a normative claim. "Antagonistic cooperation" as an exemplary attitude, one drawn from Emerson and elaborated by Burke and Ellison, can further help sustain democratic cultures involved in identity conflicts. This interpretation highlights a humanist emphasis on "comic" ways of interpreting and performing symbolic actions and cautions against an overly tragic and redemptive interpretation of social rituals of sacrifice.

My own approach is in part a response to a received view of Burke and Ellison scholarship. Both Burke and Ellison are usually read within the disciplinary context of the study of literature and rhetoric. Kenneth Burke has been studied by many fine scholars such as William Rueckert and Greig Henderson; I owe much to their analyses of Burke's thought. But although I am indebted to these venues of scholarship, I would point out the limitations of such a narrow disciplinary focus. Neither Burke nor Ellison thought very much in disciplinary terms; in fact both men were more inclined to flaunt those boundaries, to the consternation of their peers. Fred Inglis (whose own intellectual history of Clifford Geertz sheds much light on these interdisciplinary connections) called Burke a "philosophic-historiographic-part Marxist-part pragmatist literary critic." Yet scholars continue to read Burke primarily in the context of literature and rhetoric. John Callahan writes of an Ellison who worked on autobiographical essays, literary essays, music criticism, and cultural criticism and throughout these multiple tasks articulated a thesis that "the American ideal is equality, the American theory pragmatism, and the American style the vernacular" and that the search for identity is "the American theme." Yet Ellison is most often studied solely within the history of the American novel, or, more narrowly yet, the history of African-American literature. To place either man in so narrow a context doesn't do what each thinker invites the reader to do. To read them with the breadth of interpretive context that they invite would take a reader into both the history of religious thought as well as the realm of American pragmatism. Both Burke and Ellison were driven by large concerns at once political, ethical, literary, and spiritual.

Meanwhile, while Burke and Ellison have been studied within an overly narrow disciplinary framework, something else has been going on in the field of American thought. Not so long ago, the concept of American pragmatism would evoke the names of Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey as the major contributors to its canon. But the scope of American pragmatic thought has expanded greatly in the last two decades. Thanks in large part to the work of Richard Poirier, Cornel West, and Stanley Cavell, students of American pragmatism can see that the tradition they are studying needs to go back at least as far as Emerson to tell the tale they want to tell. Hence, all the work that shows Emersonian influences can now be seen as likely connected in some way to the scope of American pragmatic thought. Poirier has illuminated the breadth of Emersonian literary influence within a wider pragmatic American thought. West has shown how the religious thought of someone like Reinhold Niebuhr has family resemblances to American pragmatism. He also points to W.E.B. Dubois in an expansion of a potential canon of American pragmatism that can encompass American cultural criticism concerned with matters of race.

In sum, the canon of American pragmatic thought has rapidly expanded past the scope of those few classical American philosophers. In this expanded context, Giles Gunn has paid particular attention to Kenneth Burke's work. I am trying to go through the door that Gunn's work has opened: The time is ripe for Burke and Ellison scholarship to enter this newly expanded field of American pragmatic thought. Both Burke and Ellison, I believe, would be pleased to be read not just in the context of literary disciplines, but also within the interdisciplinary realms of moral, religious, and political thought.

My own aim, then, is not so much to further the scope of contemporary Burke scholarship inside a received disciplinary framework as it is to make Burke's thought available to scholars in other disciplines who seem less familiar with it and who might find it relevant. Burke can help to fill in some intellectual genealogies that could benefit from all the historical continuity they can muster. To know one's own intellectual, disciplinary, and institutional history will likely take one outside familiar disciplinary terrain, which, Ellison would be quick to remind us, was never as defined and delineated as it appears in retrospect.

I could say the same about Ellison scholarship. I am attempting to take the excellent Ellison scholarship that is already out there and point out its relevance to scholars who are not studying Ellison already. I particularly want to take the implications of Ellison's thoughts about scapegoating and show them to be part of a usable past tradition of pragmatic thought to which American moral philosophers and culture critics might turn. In short, I am not trying to be either a Burke or an Ellison scholar, but rather to add Burke, Santayana, and Ellison to a family tree. I hope that this complication of the genealogical picture will make for an expanded conversation, as any addition to a family tree should.

Few academic scholars of religion concerned with American religious thought currently notice Burke's relevance to the discipline. This is unfortunate; if solidarity informs what sense of community we have, then the central concern with identity of these two men would help us fill out the uses, abuses, and limitations of human solidarity and would highlight the stakes we have in our withholding of solidarity when we decide to do so.

Although Ellison is currently in less danger of academic neglect than Burke, he is being claimed, I believe, by critics who do not interpret him as he asks in his essays to be interpreted. To paraphrase his invisible man, he has "been called one thing and then another"; I'm making my best attempt to call him what he seems to call himself. By making Burke invisible in Ellison's work, critics deny it the universality of appeal that Ellison tried so hard and so consciously to achieve as a standard of excellence in craft and art. Burke and Ellison especially show some of the reasons why Americans can't "get past" racial divisions or, by analogy, religious and gender divisions in American identity; they offer a plausible explanation of what human "sacrificial motives" have to do with the matter and why those motives persist, as I will show in detail in later chapters. Ellison shows why lynching is a perversion of the best of human capacities into the worst. Burke does the same for historical forms of anti-Semitism and provides similar examples.

Ellison's insights about scapegoating will add to a religious discussion about sacrifice, but will also show that religious identity is mediated in the same ways as other forms of social identity. Any academic discipline concerned with identity construction has much to learn from a discussion of sacrificial motives in the study of religion. Likewise, the study of religion has much to learn from those who think about the politics of racial, national, gendered, and ethnic forms of identity that might seem more "secular," but which are as subject to "sacrificial motives," as Burke and Ellison define them, as any other human social grouping.


Excerpted from The Rites of Identity by Beth Eddy Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

Giles Gunn
This is a rich, interesting, and lucidly argued study of the relations between Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison that draws out some of the significance of their relationship for reconceptualizing a de-theologized religious position. The author substantiates her claims with vigor and writes about her two authors with a very beguiling directness and clarity.
Giles Gunn, University of California, Santa Barbara
William Hart
I wish that I had written this book. It is a study in religious naturalism that , in the end, is about the pieties and impieties entailed by the language that we use. It is the first book-length study of the relationship between Burke and Ellison and the only study that takes up questions of religious naturalism in their work.
William Hart, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Meet the Author

Beth Eddy is a 1996 Charlotte Newcombe Fellow and a lecturer in religion at Princeton University.

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