Kool and the Gang gave my generation “Celebration,” our very own 1980 party anthem.
Go ahead and turn on the music if you like; it makes an ebullient backdrop to this introduction.
Of course you might know “Celebration” if you’ve made it to the Galactic Dance Off in Kinect Star Wars, or if you happened to catch the 2011 Parks and Recreation episode titled, “The Bubble.” Or Dancing With The Stars,“Hollywood Night” episode in 2013, or in the films Eat, Pray, Love or Wreck-It Ralph. According to its IMDb listing, it’s been included in a lengthy list of films, television shows, video games and remixed too many times to by too many DJs to name so you might have heard it at a party or music festival. In other words, the song’s life has extended well beyond its birth in the disco era.
But is this the first time “Celebration” showed up in one of your classes? I suppose the even bigger question might be, what’s it doing here?
Like all good writing should, the answer begins with a story.
Imagine you enter a party.
I’ll let Kenneth Burke take the story from here. If you’ve never heard of Burke, don’t feel bad. He was a literary theorist, a philosopher, and a critic, among other things. His influence is wide among academics, yet he’s not a household name. There exists a Kenneth Burke Society, a Kenneth Burke Journal, and his oft-told-in-university classrooms “parlor story” that explains a philosophy of academic inquiry which we’ll adhere to. I quote from Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form.
Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When others arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before…The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. It is from this ‘unending conversation’ that the materials of your drama arise. (110)
This parlor, or party if you prefer, and its “unending conversation” is one metaphor for academic inquiry. The literary art forms we’ll study and create this semester, and the analytical and aesthetic conversations we’ll have about them, have been going on long before we arrived on the scene in much the same way that humans used drums and horns and vocals long before Kool and the Gang created a song with enough staying power to outlast the end of disco. What does this have to do with you? Return to your imaginary parlor and the conversation you walk into.
…You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable…
It is from this “unending conversation”..that the materials of your drama arise. Nor is this verbal action all there is to it. For all these words are grounded in what Malinowski would call “contexts of situation.” And very important among these… are the kind of factors considered by Benthem, Marx, and Veblen, the material interests (of private or class structure) that you symbolically defend or symbolically appropriate or symbolically align yourself with in the course of making your assertions.
To be sure, the unending conversation will go on long after you and I leave the party, even life itself.
But right now we are in Kenneth Burke’s imaginary parlor. So, let’s make something memorable happen.