Finding composure

Posted on | June 10, 2013 | No Comments

Kenneth Burke’s “Literature as Equipment for Living” (1941) is an early attempt to offer a sociological approach to literature – one that can account for the role of popular textual forms in cementing social relations. As a work of criticism, it proposes a method for assessing literary works as responses to ‘typical, recurrent social situations’ (593). Proverbs, to take his main example, are the ultimate example of a form designed to provide ‘strategies for dealing with situations’ (595). Their folk wisdom allows us to tell through an implied command ‘what to expect, what to look out for’ (593). For Burke, the task of sociological criticism applied to literature is ‘to codify the various strategies which artists have developed with relation to the naming of situations… to assemble and codify this lore’ (596-7).

In my current project, Burke’s model is useful for an analysis of time management manuals, the genre of popular publication that emerged on a large scale in response to the downsizing of white collar work in the 1970s and onwards. A number of strategies appear repeatedly in these works over the course of several decades, only to re-emerge (often without acknowledgment) in the ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) software industry today. Attending to this history sociologically reveals that ‘beneath the change in particulars,’ in Burke’s words, ‘we may often discern the naming of the one situation’ (597).

The ‘situation’ that time management responds to is the challenge of summoning professional composure. Time management manuals are a strategy individuals use to navigate the experience of ordinary office work as management initiatives press employees to ‘work smarter, not harder’ against a backdrop of broader economic insecurity. As an ethnographer and as a participant in white collar work, I am of course subject to these same mandates; they are part of the social and cultural context that colors my encounter with my research objects. My analysis therefore enacts a form of engagement that is open to subjective reformation of the kind advocated in the texts themselves. This is because, aside from my training in literary theory and sociology, my upbringing leaves me ill-‘equipped’ to know how to navigate the work world I now inhabit.

In his essay, written before such career concerns were common for as many, Burke is dismissive of popular ‘inspirational literature’ – the genre with which time management is most closely aligned. He spoofs the allure of self-help publications for providing ‘a strategy for easy consolation… in an era of confusion like our own’ (595).

    The reading of a book on the attaining of success is in itself the symbolic attaining of that success. It is while they read that readers are “succeeding” … The lure of the book resides in the fact that the reader, while reading it, is then living in the aura of success. What he wants is easy success; and he gets it in symbolic form by the mere reading itself. To attempt applying such stuff in real life would be very difficult, full of many disillusioning problems (596)

In dismissing the textual encounter as merely symbolic, in separating the critic from the presumed reader being described, ultimately, by adopting a mode of superiority over and above the text itself, Burke inhabits the classic pose of mid-century cultural criticism in this passage. It is a form of engagement with texts that cannot admit or even entertain the notion that the critic might be changed by the object of his commentary.

By contrast, in reading these books sympathetically, I aim to create a method that is appropriate to the changing configuration of authority and expertise in the knowledge industries of the present. It is a method that puts at the forefront the ‘many disillusioning problems’ that the workplace and everyday life presents. As Lauren Berlant (2011: 5) argues, norms of self-management are always responsive to the ‘kinds of confidence people have enjoyed about the entitlements of their social location’. These entitlements include, I suggest, the privilege of partaking in the critical tradition itself, which has involved specific ‘class, racial, sexual, and gendered styles of composure’ (Berlant, ibid.) Drawing on Berlant, what I am beginning to call ‘lateral criticism’ is a fitting method for studying time management techniques and the white collar work it pertains to. This method is a means to address both the ongoing politics of knowledge and representation and the forms of occupational insecurity and vulnerability that haunt my own workday as much as others.


Kenneth Burke (1998/1941) Literature as Equipment for Living (.pdf), The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd Edition, David H. Richter (ed), Bedford Books, Boston.

Lauren Berlant (2011) Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, Durham.


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