Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Form in literature is an arousing and fulfilment of desires.

Kenneth Burke
Counter-Statement, p. 124.

Burke's famous definition of literary form can be applied also to academic writing. "A work has form," he said, "in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence."

But the words "gratified" and "fulfilment" should not be taken to mean that form depends on telling readers what to expect and then giving it to them. To be "gratified by the sequence" of parts may involve being surprised, even disappointed. The point is that even surprise is possible only on the background of an anticipated outcome. The task of arranging a literary surprise cannot be completed without first "arousing a desire", which may then be left unfulfilled, or be fulfilled by unexpected means.

Think of "theory" as your means to arouse your readers and "empirical analysis" as your means to fulfil them. The theoretical part of your paper should anticipate the empirical conclusions. It is perfectly in order to present your theory opportunistically, i.e., to set your reader up for your conclusions. Even where they are surprised, your readers will be gratified to have first derived a clear image of what you "should have found" from their own theoretical assumptions. That gratification, as Burke points out, is an indication of good form. And it will be felt when they turn their disappointment (about your conclusions) into constructive criticism (of your theory or method). That criticism, in turn, will improve the form of your next paper.

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