Rhetoric's Earthly Realm: Heidegger, Sophistry and the Gorgian Kairos

By Allen, Ira | Composition Studies, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Rhetoric's Earthly Realm: Heidegger, Sophistry and the Gorgian Kairos


Allen, Ira, Composition Studies


Rhetoric's Earthly Realm: Heidegger, Sophistry and the Gorgian Kairos, by Bernard Alan Miller. Anderson: Parlor P, 2011. 387 pp.

It's always a good time for a book about kairos, rhetoric's most timeoriented concept. But the present moment, as our shared world reorders itself in particularly drastic ways, is especially fine for Bernard Alan Miller's Rhetoric's Earthly Realm. Miller offers, via Gorgias and Heidegger, a worldview that underscores our caught-upness in language and accepts kairos as language's transformation of the world in and as us. Readers will probably agree with Miller that, by contrast, Plato's version of kairos scrabbles too desperately for mastery of language, or that other "right-timing" rhetorical readings of kairos overemphasize an idea of the rhetor as sovereign subject, swaying audiences with just-in-time delivery. Whether compositionists are prepared to open up to the trickster kairos that Miller discerns in Gorgias and Heidegger, however, is an open question.

On the whole, and despite real difficulties on the Heidegger side of things, they should. Miller asks us to accept a vision of the Gorgian kairos as marking the moment and mode of our being overcome by language, such that we in turn serve as conduits for language's overcoming of others and itself (316-18). In this, the central insight motivating Rhetoric's Earthly Realm is as crucial as ever, and deserving of the deep engagement Miller requests of us: language is both greater than and what we are. In tracing out what this means for rhetoric, returning always to kairos as a rhetorical term of art, Miller takes up a host of other key terms, Greek and otherwise: physis, mystery, xa, racial memory, doxa, Augenblick, and Dasein, not least of all. In succession, each comes to identify with some or all of the others before finding new definition in opposition to them; along the way, doxa re-emerges (not unproblematically) as glory, physis presents as the linguistic upsurge of being that allows Dasein and Being to be differentially together, and language reigns over and within all as dynastes: logos as the trickster personification of both word and reason, "the terrible secret of the irrational in the flesh" (243). Even - and perhaps especially - for compositionists wary of rhetorical theory without a clear pedagogical payoff, Rhetoric's Earthly Realm is a valuable read.

Those only interested in the concept of kairos will be especially wellserved by chapters 2 and 3, "The Platonic Kairos" and "The Gorgian Kairos." These perform important conceptual work in situating kairos between philosophical and rhetorical traditions, suggesting that neither has yet come quite to terms with the kairotic implications of Gorgias' vision of language as dynastes, as a ruler. To really grasp these implications, the unfurling of Miller's entire text is perhaps as important as its conclusions, but the reader pressed for time (or indifferent to Heidegger) might turn directly from chapter 3 to chapter 6 ("Paradox and the Power of the Possible: Kairos as the Mark of the Trickster"), the last in Rhetoric's Earthly Realm. Where Miller is concerned in early chapters to draw out clearly, in more or less hermeneutic fashion, the thinking of Plato and Gorgias - with the result that the pacing of those chapters, while moderate, is rarely challenging - by the close of the text he has worked himself into something of a frenzy. So many terms are buzzing about, partially identified with and partially disjunct from or even logically antecedent to one another, that chapter 6 seems authentically to have submitted to language's calling. In Heidegger's idiom, which Miller follows throughout, the ek-static frenzy of the text in this final chapter bears witness to the Saying of language. The result is a sense of or feeling for kairos as language's appropriation of us, its supposed users. In opening and listening to this appropriation of us by a movement internal to language itself, we partake of a power as much magical as technical, a world-naming and worldchanging power that moves us from the everydayness of given situations to the authenticity of new encounters with the linguistic limits of our being. …

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