Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dramatistic and Verb-Based Thinking

I realize that I have been waltzing around Kenneth Burke's opposition of dramatism to scientism without homing in on what it is about the difference that is so important to him. A good place to see just what he means by this distinction is in the appendix to his book Permanence and Change, which is entitled "On Human Behavior Considered 'Dramatistically.'" This appendix includes the following passage:
Human conduct, being in the realm of action and end (as contrasted with the physicist’s realm of motion and position) is most directly discussible in dramatistic terms. By "dramatistic" terms are meant those that begin in theories of action rather than in theories of knowledge. Terminologies grounded in the observing of sensory perception would be classed as theories of Knowledge. In the same classification would fall all theories of conditioning (which is the lowest form of learning). We do not mean to imply that "scientist" approaches (in terms of knowledge or learning), do not yield good results. On the contrary, such perspectives can contribute many important modifiers to the essential nouns of human relationship.
The point that he seems to be making is that his "scientist" approaches are restricted to the grammar of noun phrases, nouns and their modifiers, while dramatistic terms expand this scope into the grammar of action, which is to say the grammar of verbs. However, in my own efforts to develop the distinction between verb-based and noun-based thinking, I have come to the recognition that the grammar of verbs may well involve more than what Burke had in mind for a theory of action. The fact that voice is a critical element of verb grammar means that verb-based thinking involves more than what active verbs tell us about agents taking motivated actions. There are also passive verbs that tell us about agents subjected to actions, either the motivated actions of other agents or what Seymour Chatman calls "occurrences," which just "happen" (like you-know-what).

However, there is far more to verb-based thinking than the grammar of voice. There is the whole rich repertoire of tense, which, in many respects, arises from our efforts to capture of consciousness of time in the language we use. As I recently wrote, the world of nouns (even with their modifiers) is a fundamentally static world, which does not require time-consciousness. There is, only now, no future, no past, no perfect, and certainly no pluperfect! This is why I chose to consider the problem of "encyclopedic" references in terms of the problems of inertia and volatility (which are little more than my own terminology for Burke's "permanence" and "change"). Because those references have, by their very nature, inertia, they can never accommodate the volatility of the "real world;" but, when we move beyond the limitation of Burke-style theories of knowledge to noun phrases, we discover that verb tense allows us to describe (and thus think about) such volatility (which, incidentally, includes a history-based approach to that fundamental concept of αγών, which figured in yesterday's post).

Beyond tense there is the grammar of mood, through which we recognize the distinction between the "grounded" here-and-now of the indicative and the "hypothetical" of the subjunctive and the "directive" of the imperative. While we can invoke constructs of voice and tense as part of our own efforts to make sense of the world and describe the sense that we make, even if only to ourselves, the subjunctive and imperative moods are "instruments" of the social world. They broaden the scope of verb-based thinking from the volatility of our own (subjective) life-world to the (social) life-world that we cohabit and share with others. Thus, through mood we can transcend the "immediacy" of αγών with a capacity to prepare for what might be.

Thus, the "theories of action" behind dramatistic thinking involve more than the actions themselves. They also involve the richness of how we can talk and think about those actions by virtue of the variety of grammatical constructs for the expression of verbs. Unfortunately, we still succumb to our positivist roots by constructing abstractions that attempt to reduce verbs to nouns; but those abstractions seldom carry us very far through that volatility of the real world. Furthermore, since those abstractions continue to lie at the heart of what we call "enterprise software," that software will be seriously impeded in any workplace whose very existence depends on keeping up with that volatility!

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