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

By Cautrell, Dion C. | Composition Studies, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Cautrell, Dion C., Composition Studies


Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis, edited by Phillip Sipiora and James S. Baumlin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. 258 pages.

In her foreword Carolyn R. Miller positions Rhetoric and Kairos as a response to skepticism about rhetoric's remaining too thoroughly "rooted in a particular historical period, a particular language, a particular set of cultural purposes" (xi). For Miller the collection addresses concerns about "the ancient emphasis on practical production rather than theory and interpretation; the accompanying 'ideology of human agency' that characterizes ancient rhetoric; and the 'thinness' or abstract quality of the ancient productionist vocabulary that can easily be applied to anything and thus conveys little of real critical interest" (xi). Overcoming these limitations, however, may not engage some critics' unease over "how satisfactorily that particular framework [ancient rhetorical theory] can be 'globalized' to become the universal hermeneutic it is often claimed to be in recent theory and criticism" (xi). The included essays do tend toward hermeneutics, but that tendency might as easily bolster critics' arguments as refute them. The desire to (over)extend kairos ("right timing, due measure") does not necessarily prove its, or rhetoric's, usefulness beyond classical models of textual production. Even so, several contributors complicate the relationship between Rhetoric and Composition and other fields by exploring rhetoric's continuing hermeneutic value.

While interest in kairos has increased steadily -due largely to James L. Kinneavy, of whom more later-Rhetoric and Kairos' main objective seems, despite Miller's formulation, to be a recovery of the concept for an audience unaware of its ubiquity or varied applications. The volume's first three-fifths focus largely on ancient thinkers like Protagoras and Quintilian. Two exceptions to this trend are worth noting, however, because they (re)situate kairos outside of discourse per se. Richard Leo Enos's "Inventional Constraints on the Technographers of Ancient Athens" presents the literacy constraints imposed on Greek technographers by the timekeeping methods associated with primary orality, while Catherine R. Eskin's "Hippocrates, Kairos, and Writing in the Sciences" explores the centrality of kairos to the Corpus Hippocraticum-the texts associated with the physician Hippocrates and his successors.

Although Enos and Eskin ground their work in ancient Greek practices, the arguments they develop are equally useful in the context of current debates about the rhetorical dimensions of time and timekeeping (as with writing tests like the revised SAT exam) and of medical care (as related to doctor-patient ethics and rapport). Enos accentuates time's material impact on ancient Greek discourse: "This study offers archeological and textual evidence that reveals the conventional constraints on writing used in the service of preserving oral discourse in ancient Athens and advances the following claim: when civic writing was used in the service of orality the constraint of time must be used as a factor in Greek rhetoric" (78). Beyond stressing the historical transition from primary orality to literacy -"protoliterate" activity-Enos yokes rhetorical theory to the material conditions surrounding its enactment (77). While rhetoric ideally grants writers influence over how words function in the world, writing remains a technology and, as such, operates under both internal and external constraints. Theories that look to kairos only to explain when/how words are deployed overlook literal timing: "Our efforts to understand classical rhetoric have not included a sensitivity to what is called 'immediate time,' that is, units of hours and minutes. Our current research in classical rhetoric shows no accounting for, and demonstrates no real awareness of, the momentary in Greek rhetoric" (78-79). Anyone who accepts the interdependence of thinking-writing-doing must surely account for more than discursive timeliness. …

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