In my field, we spend a lot of time arguing over our own utility.
My field, we call ourselves by a lot of names: writing studies, rhetoric, composition studies, technical communication, etc.
The grad program I’m in straddles a few of these denotations and calls itself: “Rhetoric and Writing.”
Yeah. See what they did there?
For me, rhetoric is the study of what people do with language, with words, whether in speech or writing. If words are the weapon, rhetoric’s the study of how we wield it. As such, a rhetorical examination can include an analysis of performance (how we say it), of the construction (how we put it together), and/or of the effects of those choices (what does the text do for/to/with its readers?).
My program, then, takes a very particular spin on these question through its focus on “rhetoric and society”; that is, many of the faculty are interested in what rhetoric can and does do outside of the university. In the real world, as it were.
So there’s this big fanwanky battle in rhetoric and composition over how, when, and even if we as academics should intercede in societal problems, be it at the community, state, or national level.
We talk A LOT about this. And damn if we’re not good at it, the talking.
We sing the songs of the blah blah like champs, we do.
To me, many folks in the discipline are way happier yammering about how “the field” should be acting than in taking any goddamn action themselves. There’s this weird desire to settle the question across the board, like we all have to agree (or at least be cowed into submission) as to the way that WE should use our rhetorical skills for “good,” not ill. [Of course, some of us think we’re better equipped to determine what defines “good” for others than they are. Bien sur.]
I find this utterly fucking infuriating. To put it mildly.
My poor classmates have had to listen to me shout about it pretty regularly this term, because after almost two years of coursework, I am sick and fucking tired of talking.
Here’s what I tend to yell: this question can’t be settled by fiat. We have to wade into a community not on a mission from Plato but to freaking LISTEN to what people are saying and then figure out how we might be of use. And we need to fucking eject the word “help” from our vocabulary because it’s insulting at best and paternalistic at worst.
Look, when it comes down to it, we need to embrace kairos.
Kairos is “the ancient conception of time that attends to degrees of propitiousness,” says Debra Hawhee in Bodily Arts. It’s “rhetoric’s timing,” or “the quality of timing” (65,66). It’s the rhetor’s ability to react, to read the audience, the situation, her speech all at once and attune her performance accordingly.
Yes! Like the man says: it’s all about the heat of the moment.
Kairos demands listening, sensitivity, a lightness on one’s feet, and an ability to adjust in media res to respond to the situation at hand. Kairos demands an openness to one’s rhetorical situation, and a willingness to adjust midstream.
Weirdly, I think kairos is easier to see or sense when it’s absent. We’ve all been in classes or lectures where the speaker or our colleague or the prof has completely lost the room; there’s that tension in the air between the rhetor and the audience, with the audience going WTF? and the rhetor rolling on, seemingly clueless to the effects she or he is having on the assembly.
None of what I’m saying is new; in 1996, Ellen Cushman sketched out a method she called “participatory-action research” that beautifully embodies the kind of approach I favor.
But the thing is, see, kairos asks for humility–just a touch, just enough to acknowledge that the heat of the moment may require a different response, a shift, a mid-air adjustment, than that which the rhetor has planned. Because if one’s goal really is to convince an audience–or at least carry them with you to the end–then it follows that you’d do what you had to do, what you must, to keep them on your hook.
So for me, the question is not: alas, why does the world not recognize my utility as a Rhetorician?
It’s: what can I do to make myself useful to the world? Useful as defined by situation, by kairos, and not pre-determined by me in my mouse hole in the ivory tower.
Easy to say, ironically. Now: how the fuck do I do it?