From Terministic Screens to God-terms

A terministic screen is just Kenneth Burke's fancy way of talking about verbal perspectives. Think of turning your head one way and seeing something different than if you had turned your head in the opposite direction. Now apply that idea to language. That's a terministic screen. From Burke himself, “A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing,” he writes, and “a focus on object A involves a neglect of object B” (49, emphasis in original). This statement about seeing and focusing is crucial, and we have to keep it in mind when we read Burke’s later-published essay “Terministic Screens,” where Burke asks the reader to consider several photographs of the same objects, photographs in which the objects appear different because of the different lenses on the camera:


When I speak of “terministic screens,” I have particularly in mind some photographs I once saw. They were different photographs of the same objects, the difference being that they were made with different color filters. Here something so “factual” as a photograph revealed notable distinctions in texture, and even in form, depending upon which color filter was used for the documentary description of the event being recorded. (Language 45, emphasis in original)

Elsewhere, I have commented,
In this passage, Burke is using camera lenses as a metaphor to explain his notion of terministic screens: things change depending on the lenses we use to see them, and language and words are necessary lenses that human beings always use, lenses that affect and determine the way we see the world. From this passage and others (Language 46, 51), Burke uses sight as a meta-terministic screen—a terministic screen that is intended to help his audience see and understand what he means when he talks about terministic screens. In other words, “A way of seeing involves a way of not seeing” (Permanence 49); “A textbook on physics . . . turns the attention in a different direction from a textbook on law or psychology” (Language 45, emphasis in original). (Slater 6-7)
In other words, the words we use are lenses through which we see the world. Not only that, but we’re always seeing the world through some kind of lens or terministic screen. Burke (pictured) writes,
We must use terministic screens, since we can’t 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. (Language 50, Burke’s emphasis)
Because all words or screens direct the attention “to one field rather than another,” what we “see” because of our terms is necessarily “a reflection of reality, . . . a selection of reality[,] and . . . a deflection of reality” (Language 45, Burke’s emphasis).

In other words, each set of lenses, terminologies, or “fields” (an important word when considering Burke’s use of the meta-terministic screen of seeing and sight) makes implicit observations and implicit judgments: “A focus on object A involves a neglect of object B,” and whether A is a word, an emotion, or even something else (but now I’m getting too broad for this post), by choosing A instead of B, we also choose A over B and thus imply that A is better than B. We have hereby assumed a hierarchy, which where we can begin to note the existence of ultimate terms—or what Burke also calls god-terms and devil-terms—within a particular terministic screen.

God-terms and Devil-terms

Wayne Booth writes that Burke “was obsessed” with the following knowledge, that
Elsewhere, Burke has written that “Each brand of imagery contains in germ its own logic” (Philosophy of Literary 148). I take the phrases “brand of imagery” and “terministic screens” or “fields” to be synonymous. In other words, we can take a certain “brand of imagery” and, by paying attention to what is focused on and what is left out of focus, follow its own implicit logic to wherever it leads us (referring to Aristotle, Burke calls this the entelechial principle). And when we thus “compute” a particular lens’ “logic,” we end up with the ultimate terms—god-terms at the top and devil-terms at the bottom. Richard Weaver explains that a god-term is
that expression about which all other expressions are ranked as subordinate and serving dominations and powers. Its force imparts to the [other terms] their lesser degree of force, and fixes the scale by which degrees of comparison are understood. (212)
God-terms transcend the terms from which they are derived (Rhetoric of Religion 3, 10). They are the ultimate reduction, and contain “in germ” all other terms within their own lens or field. God-terms are the ultimate good within a given lens, while devil-terms are the ultimate evil.

Some examples of god-terms, according to Burke, are progress, money, and democracy (see his Grammar of Motives, for example). Another one is equality. God-terms are powerful words because to say “No” to a god-term is to imply that there is something “devilish” about the one who says “No.” A person can’t say “No” to a god-term and still remain, in the eyes of others, “without guile.” Remember, Burke isn't necessarily talking about religion, but he is using the language of religion as a terministic screen and applying it to the way human beings communicate. A knowledge of god-terms is important because finding out what they are and how they are used in a given rhetorical situation (or a situation in which influence happens among human beings) enables us to recognize ulterior and perhaps ultimate motives. In other words, as soon as we can see what Aristotle called the available means of persuasion in any given situation (Rhetoric 1355b), we enable ourselves to me careful about the means that are used to persuade us to certain ideologies.

Both god-terms and devil-terms are used strategically in war, in politics, in friendships, in gossip, in debate, in journalism, etc. (I could go on, but this list will suffice). The strategy, then, is to use god-terms to deify one's friends, while using devil-terms to demonize one's enemies. That's the strategy. When two countries or two ideologies are at war with one another, they will use god-terms to define their allies and friends, and they will also use devil-terms to define the enemy.

God-terms and devil-terms are also used in acts of communication, influence, persuasion. In short, “If people believe something, the poet can use this belief to get an effect” (Burke, Counter-Statement 146).
Works Cited
Aristotle. Rhetoric. Plato Gorgias and Aristotle Rhetoric. Trans. and ed. Joe Sachs. Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2009. 121-284. Print.
Booth, Wayne C. “The Many Voices of Kenneth Burke, Theologian and Prophet, as Revealed in His Letters to Me.” Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke. Eds. Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 2001. 179-201. Print.
Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. Print.
---. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.
---. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. Print.
---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 2nd ed. Los Altos, CA: Hermes, 1954. Print.
---. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P. 1973. Print.
---. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.
Perelman, Chaïm. The Realm of Rhetoric. Trans. William Kluback. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1982. Print.
Slater, Jarron B. “Seeing (the Other) Through a Terministic Screen of Spirituality: Emotional Integrity as a Strategy for Identification.” MA thesis. Brigham Young University, 2012. Print.
Images courtesy of WikiCommons.
This post is an excerpt of a previous post.

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