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)
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,
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
God-terms and Devil-terms
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
- once we speak, we express value
- once we express value, a distinction between the good and the not good, we
imply a hierarchy of values according to which that judgment makes sense
- any hierarchy of values necessarily entails a supreme value term at the top,
a god-term validating the steps in the hierarchy. (“Many Voices” 195)
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,
Aristotle. Rhetoric. Plato Gorgias and
Aristotle Rhetoric. Trans. and ed. Joe Sachs. Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2009.
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.
Kenneth. Counter-Statement. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1968. Print.
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.
courtesy of WikiCommons.
This post is an excerpt of a previous post.
Labels: Perspective, Religion, Rhetoric