Friday, April 15, 2011

Hidden Mickeyisms 2: Burke’s Circles and Mickey Mouse

In Chapter One of her book, Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film, Annalee R. Ward makes a strong case for the importance of studying the rhetoric of Disney stories. Citing Kenneth Burke’s essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Ward presents “one of the goals of [her] book: seeking to discover how Disney films provide equipment for moral living.” Ward draws support from comments by many others in asserting that Disney is a moral educator: William Powers of the Washington Post, Henry Giroux writing in the Socialist Review, John Taylor in his book Storming the Magic Kingdom, Michael Real writing in Mass Mediated Culture, and Benjamin Barber of the New York Times. Along with Robert L. Schrag, Ward argues that “children ‘are more vulnerable, more persuadable than adult audiences.’” Following Connor Freff Cochran, who analyzed the music of Hans Zimmer in Lion King, she states: “Film is a powerful storyteller; employing narrative, visuals, and music enhances its power to communicate a vision of moral living.” Ward cites Hayden White, asking: “Could we ever narrativize without moralizing?” She observes in “Kenneth Burke’s language of ‘terministic screen’ . . . or ‘frame of interpretation’” Burke’s use of the phrase “trained incapacity,” which she sees as a “limit [on] how a person is able to see the world.” What is that limit? She cites Robert L. Schrag: “[T]hese . . . stories are not subjected, in the minds of those young children who view them, to the test of narrative fidelity. These children are in the process of constructing the criteria against which they will judge the narrative fidelity of other stories.” Schrag has, in this comment, stated the essence of Kennethy Burke’s concept of entelechy, as it applies to Disney films. Disney films become circles by which the various other circles of the children’s own personal lives are critiqued.

Disney exercises vast global influence. Disney artistic creations are better known by children than those of DaVinci, Mozart, or Shakespeare. Through its films, Disney provides powerful entelechies to children and their parents. These films are cow paths that implicitly offer self-persuasive rhetoric to children. Just as cows mindlessly follow paths that have been established by the cows that preceded them from pasture to pasture, so children (and adults) mindlessly follow the psychological and interpretive paths established for them. Of course, parents and older siblings establish some of these paths. The proverb “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the oak” is illustrative. Children frequently grow up in the same patterns established by their parents. History, as children learn it, establishes patterns. Some people fear the coming of another Great Depression because contemporary historical data may appear to remind them of the earlier historical event. George Santayana said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Religion establishes entelechies. In earlier generations, Christian children were accustomed to attending Sunday School. At Sunday School (and, for that matter, in the public schools, in years past), the children became “biblically literate.” They learned stories about Jesus, Adam and Eve, Moses, Joseph, Abraham, King David, Daniel, etc. Bracelets, pins, and tee shirts proclaim: WWJD (symbolizing: What would Jesus do?). The catch phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” is designed to evoke Biblical entelechies to be followed by Christians. With the decline of Sunday Schools and the progressive exclusion of religious stories from the public schools, another moral force has stepped in to fill the entelechial void. Disney now establishes many of these paths for children through its films.

Kenneth Burke's term for the type of rhetoric implicit in Disney films is entelechy. More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle coined the term entelechy [entelecheia] to indicate a process. The process to which entelechy refers in Aristotle's writings is the most common process. Entelechy, according to Aristotle, refers to natural processes (such as the cosmic circles mentioned in the previous commentary):

Aristotle thought of seeds, for example, as possessing within themselves the "final cause" or telos--the goal of what the mature plant would be. He believed that there exists within a grain of wheat the formula that makes the seed first produce roots and a sprout, then grow a blade, which grows into a stalk, until finally an ear of new grain develops. The plan for the fully grown stalk with its ear of grain is implicit in the seed. To use a computer metaphor, the seed is "programmed" to produce a fully developed wheat plant. The telos (or goal) of the fully developed plant is held in the seed and in the plant throughout the growth process. Thus Aristotle called the process "entelechy." "En" means "within." "Tel" is short for telos, the goal. "Ech" means "to have." "Y" indicates "process." Thus, "En-tel-ech-y" means: the process of development (cf. Attitudes Toward History, hereafter ATH, 107) while having one's telos within oneself.

Burke extends Aristotelian entelechy from this biological realm to the symbolic realm. He finds it necessary, however, to replace the implicit determinism of Aristotelian biological entelechy with the implicit freedom of human action in Burke's concept of entelechy. The term entelechy, as Burke and Aristotle use it, may be defined as: the process of changing from what something is into what something should become, which process is directed by an internal principle of change which allows the thing to possess internally the final form toward which the thing is changing. In the Burkean variety, this internal principle of change supplies the implicit persuasion that directs human behavior. One major source of any individual's internal principle of change is the literature that individual consumes. The question becomes, what story are you living out? Each person's life becomes a story line, a plot with three stages--a beginning, middle, and end. Each stage of the story implicitly contains the other two stages.

There are clearly many potential sources from which each individual may derive his/her personal story line. As mentioned, many children derive their story lines from the life stories of their parents; hence, the proverb "Like father, like son." Aspiring political leaders derive their story lines in part from historical leaders such as Gandhi, Washington, Lincoln, even Lenin and Chairman Mao. Some individuals such as David Koresh derive their story lines from dreams, visions, prophecies, or interpretations of prophecy. Koresh feels, for example, that he must live out what his prophecy has prescribed even if that spells a fiery death. Many religious individuals, for that matter, see their story lines as the imitation of certain biblical characters--the suffering but faithful Job, Daniel being fed to the lions, the Apostle Paul converted from the sinful Saul of Tarsus. Burke sees that Milton developed his personal entelechy somewhat along the lines of Samson the great biblical hero whose strength was removed when Delilah had his hair cut. Yet, other factors such as Milton's religion (which forbade suicide) reshaped Milton's entelechy significantly (Rhetoric of Motives, 5). Just as it is the entelechy of many Christians to live out the Jesus story, it is the entelechy of many Moslems to be like Mohammed. Those opposed to powers or public institutions may see in Robin Hood, or Jesse James, or Osama bin Laden a story line for their own lives.

These are powerful entelechies. Yet, they are not deterministic in the Aristotelian sense of natural entelechy. Humans choose from those entelechies available to them. So, what are the entelechies available to children from the literary works produced by the Walt Disney Corporation? We will consider those entelechies in future commentaries.