Robert Wade Kenny on Interdisciplinary Connections


Many thanks to Robert Wade Kenny for these informative comments:

One of my essays is mentioned above, so I would like to offer a little clarification. It is probably inappropriate to categorize that essay with medicine, for in it I look at the first pages of a Life/Death Ethics text by the renowned Peter Singer and I argue that he employs ironic aesthetics to influence his audience — a questionable tactic for one (as a philosopher) who claims the ethos of the epistemic. Frye’s forms of writing (from Words With Power) are mentioned in that essay (because one would expect Singer to keep to the “conceptual” mode) but the primary argument exploits Frye’s treatment of irony (from of course The Anatomy of Criticism), reading that argument across Kenneth Burke in a manner that shows how the ironic can be interwoven with the persuasive. As I say, the Frye/Burke argument used in that essay focused on irony, but irony, tragedy, comedy, and romance were treated as rhetorical devices through the Frye/Burke mix in an earlier article by me, “A Cycle of Terms Implicit in the Idea of Medicine; Karen Ann Quinlan and the Transvaluation of Euthanasia” (published 2005). That article did appear in a Health Communication journal (the irony Essay appeared in a rhetoric journal); all the same, it was not an argument restricted to medicine – in it, aesthetic forces that influence public judgment were explained using (as illustration) public arguments about what should be done with respect to Karen Quinlan. More than any influence on a specific paper, Frye has influenced me the way Blake influenced him. The Canadian polymath once wrote that the best way to develop a mind was to steep it in some other’s lifetime of great thought and Frye was one of those vats that I floated in for several years. Thus, I have read the thirty or so books that Frye published in his lifetime and am collecting the University of Toronto collected writings still. A few years ago, students in one of my graduate seminars read twelve of his books and I gave probing three-hour lectures on Frye’s “universe.” I talked as fast as I could and barely scratched the surface. One of my favorite books by Frye is his first, Fearful Symmetry, and I have published on that book in a collection called The Ethos of Rhetoric. My essay in that collection is called “Fearful Symmetry: Imaginative Vision and the Ethos of Rhetoric.” In it, I attempt to illustrate the role of imaginative vision in the construction of what Heidegger refers to as dwelling. Of course, I use Frye’s other shorter works on imagination there as well. Robert Bellah (who has read Frye with interest) mentioned to me that the argument in that essay seemed similar to the argument of the late Greek/French sociologist Cornelius Castoriadis who wrote for example The Imaginary Institution of Society. Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries comes to mind at this moment as well, and of course C. Wright Mills’s famous The Sociological Imagination. Given the variety of attempts being made to think the relationship between imagination and action, Frye’s treatment of imagination is deserving of a Renaissance, one which I at least attempted. It is also worth noting that Frye is experiencing something of an awakening in social performance theory and cultural pragmatics, given the interest those people have in ritual and myth. To be sure, he is not the central nor sole thinker influencing that writing; however he has influenced the thinking of those authors, who do acknowledge him, for example Jeffrey C. Alexander. I first read Frye as a young man who wanted to be a novelist, and I did indeed write half a dozen or more before going to graduate school. His influence on my understanding of narrative form at that time was unparalleled. Reputation and influence are hard to come by and hold in the academy. Often, social power plays a key role in scholarly reputation (see Homo Academicus by Pierre Bourdieu or my essay on Kenneth Burke in this light, “The Glamor of Motives”).It is remarkable that Frye has had the influence he has had beyond the boundaries of his social reputation. He is found in the most unexpected places. For example, authors who published next to me in my first significant publication in sociology were publishing an essay grounded in Frye. That essay is called “Romance, Irony, and Solidarity” and is in Sociological Theory, a 1997 volume. I have always appreciated Professor Denham’s writings on Frye, also his editing and his ability to find a pithy Frye phrase. I would have preferred to send this note directly to him rather than self-advertise, but an email address is not easily found. At any event, if the goal is to gather information about the range of Frye’s influence, these few details should help.

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4 thoughts on “Robert Wade Kenny on Interdisciplinary Connections

  1. Joseph Adamson Post author

    Thank you, Wade, for this marvelous post–very elucidating. The references are going to put back my reading schedule several weeks. So much to absorb here. Bourdieu’s analysis of “homo academicus” is directly relevant to some of the observations made on this post concerning the sense of entitlement reflected in some of the theoretical posturing that has become endemic among critical theorists, often the ones who proclaim their social consciences the loudest.

  2. robert wade kenny

    Hi Joseph,

    Frye, as you well know, came from humble social roots; consequently, the academy was not so much his social destiny as it was the natural home for his gifts. Given his love of ideas and contempt for posturing, he ignored critics, many of whom could only think in terms of the career advantages associated with treating him as a foil — he refused to let such people define the terms of his imaginative encounters. It is remarkable, in that context, the degree to which he prevailed in the intellectual community, even across fields of study. Never covetous of the limelight, he found himself regulalry within it, nonetheless. I suppose one must recognize that there are various ways to climb Achievment Mountain and Frye was able to do so almost exclusively through the power of his ideas. Very few can. Like many others (so I assume), I have always been fascinated by my own insignificance and invisibility within the academy; but I am beginning to understand it better. Lacking this scholar’s (e.g. Frye’s) scope and that scholar’s strategy, there is no reason for me to do any better than I have. Occasionally, I get a letter — someone has read and loves one of my essays — that always lifts the spirits for a few days. Other than that, I try to stay involved in the imaginative life itself, as Frye did — the only perfectly satisying reward in a world where, as Frye says, “Everything survives by eating everything else.” Perhaps it is not a continuous feeding frenzy, however; otherwise from whence comes a note such as your own? Thank you for the kind words.


    1. Joseph Adamson Post author

      Thank you so much, Wade. I hope you will continue to follow the blog, and contribute in our discussions. We look forward to hearing a lot more from you.

  3. Robert D. Denham

    Wade Kenny.

    Let me add my thanks for your piece. I’ll have to get to work on clarifying and expanding the catalogue of “Interdisciplinary Connections.” I hope that others might add to the account of the use of Frye in other disciplines.


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