Kairos and the Subject of Expressive Discourse

Article excerpt

In his important essay, "Kairos: A Neglected Concept," James Kinneavy asks, "What happens when kairos, that is, situational context, dominates a composition program?" (95). In order to pose an answer to this question Kinneavy then describes the epistemological, ethical, social, rhetorical, and aesthetic changes that could result from a kairos-based composition program. Key among these changes would be the shift in focus from the text to the situational context and its particular set of ethical issues, the need to frame the social context of the writer and reader, increased emphasis on disciplinary modes of inquiry, and increased emphasis on enabling students to find a realistic audience. In this essay, I want to ask and explore two related but more specific questions: What happens when kairos is applied to the theory of expressive discourse and to the practice of teaching it? And why is kairos an appropriate concept for trying to reunderstand or resitutate expressive discourse?

These questions come from two main concerns: expressive discourse is still perceived by some as theoretically and practically problematic in composition; kairos is still a neglected concept. What connects these two general concerns is my belief that the concept of kairos, and sophistic rhetoric in general, provides compelling ways of reunderstanding both expressive discourse and the arguments that have challenged it. In order to get at these reunderstandings, I will first review some of the ways in which the theory and practice of expressive discourse have been challenged by composition scholars such as David Bartholomae, Lester Faigley, and Jeanette Harris. Then, based on the work of Mario Untersteiner, John Poulakos, James Kinneavy, and Michael Carter, I will explain how I believe the concept of kairos provides a response to these critiques, and how it could provide an alternative way of conceptualizing and teaching expressive discourse. Specifically, I'll argue that expressive discourse is discourse that focuses on the writer but not to the exclusion of the audience and the constraints and contradictions that make up the rhetorical situation. Additionally, I will suggest that because it is a kind of writing particularly capable of calling attention to the non-rational aspects of writing (or of decision-making in writing), expressive discourse can be taught as a way to complicate and enrich students' understanding of both the processes and products of writing.

It is important to note here that what I am arguing for is an additional approach-rather than the approach-to understanding and teaching expressive discourse. My goal is not to invalidate other approaches, but rather to provide one approach that specifically addresses the opposition (be it real, illusory, or both) that has been created over the past two decades between expressive discourse and critical/rhetorical theory. In order to illustrate this particular approach, I will briefly discuss some contemporary personal writing. I will also look at Kinneavy's theory of expressive discourse in order to call attention to the important similarities that exist between Kinneavy's phenomenological approach to expressive discourse and the concept of kairos, particularly as it is explained by Poulakos. These similarities reveal a more complex-a more social-theory of expressive discourse than critics (both of expressive discourse and phenomenology) have acknowledged or allowed. Moreover, they illustrate how kairos can be productively applied to the critiques of expressive discourse as well as to current discussions of subjectivity, namely those that reject the reduction of subjectivity to an epiphenomenon.


Some critiques of expressive discourse have been around for more than twenty years, and this longevity lends them a kind of veracity or stability. In general, these critiques seem to cluster around four main arguments: 1) Theories of expressive discourse are based on vestiges of realism, humanism, or Romanticism; 2) Theories and practices of expressive discourse imply, if not depend on, an erroneous conception of the relationship between the self and language; 3) Expressive discourse encourages solipsistic kinds of writing that are indebted to bourgeois individualism and to capitalism. …