Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis

By Foster, Michael | Style, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview
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Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis


Foster, Michael, Style


Phillip Sipiora and James S. Baumlin, eds. Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. xiii + 258 pp. $71.50 cloth; $23.95 paper.

The romantic notion that poetry and rhetoric are "diametrically opposed" assumes that rhetoric cannot be used to appropriate language to a particular sentiment (Webb 339) and thus that it is either a futile exercise or a debasement of the ennobling virtues of poetic diction to use rhetorical theory to analyze literature. Stanley Porter, David Orton, Ruth Webb, Brian Vickers, and Wayne Booth (to name only a very few) have well demonstrated not only that rhetoric and rhetorical theory are applicable to the language of poetry but that this type of rhetorical analysis has been the norm throughout history. A return to rhetorical analysis can be seen in emergent and established theoretical fields alike. In poststructuralism, narratology, semiotics, and literary pragmatics, scholars have turned to rhetoric as a fecund source of concepts and terms; at the same time, in postcolonialism, feminism, and Marxism, there is a recurring notion of a rhetoric of oppression. More and more, literature is seen as a type of discourse or communication between communicators and audiences. This perception is not far from the views of Cicero, Seneca, Horace, and Aristotle, so it should not come as a surprise if there is a growing interest in ancient rhetoric and rhetorical ideas in the coining years.

This is the context in which Phillip Sipiora and James S. Baumlin's collection should be read. Rhetoric and Kairos is generally enlightening and informative to the uninitiated while also both ambitious and pioneering. In her foreword, Carolyn R. Miller states (hat the book "is at least a partial refutation of the characterization of the classical vocabulary as 'thin'" (xi). To this end, the book examines kairos from many angles. Briefly defined, kairos is qualitative time, to be distinguished from chronos, or quantative time. When one says one is having a good time, this is an invocation of the notion of kairos. The adage, "time flies when you're having fun" is a partial definition of kairos. The word has remained in modern Greek to refer to, among other things, the weather and the changing of the seasons. In a rhetorical context, the term refers to being "creative in responding to the unforeseen, to the lack of order in human life," and consequently rhetoricians use kairos "to invent, within a set of unfolding and unprecedented circumstances, an action (rhetorical or otherwise) that will he understood as uniquely meaningful within those circumstances" (xiii).

This definition of kairos is well maintained by all hut one of the contributors. In his introduction, Sipiora's in-depth and valuable definition of the term (2-7) works effectively to make the concept concrete in the mind of the reader; however, statements such as "kairos was the cornerstone of rhetoric in the Golden Age of Greece" made me wonder if the editors might be a bit too ambitious (3). Throughout the book, the concept seems to be occasionally blown out of proportion. Unlike Sipiora, I am not certain that kairos is "a seminal concept in numerous arts and discourses" or that "the neglect of kairos, of the qualitative dimension of time, has often skewed our culture's appreciation of the arts" (16).

The decay of modern arts in the Western world caused by a neglect of kairos is the central theme of the highly energetic essay by Gregory Mason, "In Praise of Kairos in the Arts: Critical Time, East and West," which sets out to demonstrate how Western theories of art, by concentrating on perseverance, have put us out of touch with the transience of life and inflicted upon us "an intense anxiety about our own mortality" (209). By contrast, Mason maintains, Eastern art-such as the Tibetian sand mandalas, Japanese tea ceremony, and the haiku-reaffirms the transience of life and celebrates the fluidity of moving time (cf.

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