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Toward a Bestial Rhetoric

From: Philosophy and Rhetoric
Volume 44, Number 1, 2011
pp. 81-87 | 10.1353/par.2011.0007

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Toward a Bestial Rhetoric

In 1993, my first full year as a master’s student studying rhetoric at the University of Tennessee, the venerable George Kennedy visited campus. He was part of a star-studded interdisciplinary symposium on rhetoric (Page duBois and Thomas Cole were the other two guests), and if memory serves, the large crowd awaiting Kennedy’s talk stirred with anticipation; this event was two years after the publication of a much-needed and now indispensible translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. After the talk, it stirred with something more like befuddlement.

Kennedy’s talk, “A Hoot in the Dark,” shared a title with an essay he had published in Philosophy and Rhetoric the year prior. The subject? Animal rhetoric. I don’t recall many specifics from the talk apart from Kennedy’s opening with his crow-watching habits in Chapel Hill, but I do recall the real-time responses. There were whispers, sidelong glances, and muttering, all of which bespoke a slight panic about his—and the field’s—direction. What was Kennedy doing? Was our distinguished leader, translator of the Sage himself, going off some deep end and taking the discipline with him? By the time he visited our campus, Kennedy had no doubt become accustomed to such responses, having been greeted on at least one occasion with a wry “Dr. Doolittle, I presume?” 1 Indeed, such responses to this direction in Kennedy’s writing had been circulating through the field proper even before “A Hoot” appeared in print. In his preface to Writing Histories of Rhetoric, Victor Vitanza attests to the shockwaves: “Prior to [the article’s] appearance, I had heard through the grapevine that Kennedy had written a ‘wild,’ perhaps savage, article. And indeed, he has” (1994, ix). Vitanza goes on to characterize his reading of the article as “‘undecidable,’ because while rereading its title and the text itself, I cannot still decide if Kennedy (or ‘energy’) wrote it seriously or farcically with beak in cheek. … Perhaps, like Aristotle, Kennedy is exploring the various possible ways, or paths” (1994, x). [End Page 81]

Vitanza’s account of “A Hoot” itself opens paths I want to consider in this forum, ways (back) into the question of rhetoric’s animality: the untimeliness of Kennedy’s focus on animals and Kennedy’s use of Aristotle in his animal-related work. In short, Kennedy channels Aristotle’s rhetorical theories while simultaneously overlooking Aristotle’s observations on the very topic of rhetorical beasts. In its own way, though, Kennedy’s fleeting dalliance with animality leaves us with a few (perhaps a very Aristotelian three, maybe more) remarkable theoretical possibilities and paths for future research, tantalizing suggestions of what animality can do to—and for—rhetorical theory.

“A Hoot in the Dark” was indeed untimely. Its untimeliness helps to account for the responses it drew, its illegibility to scholars in rhetoric, and the fact that it has not been cited all that frequently. Certainly linguists, anthropologists, and animal scientists had, prior to 1992, been studying animals, language, and communication, and Kennedy’s article draws on that body of scholarship. Jo Liska, who responded to “A Hoot” in Philosophy and Rhetoric the following year, seems quite knowledgeable in this realm of research as well, and while she strenuously disagrees with Kennedy’s definition of rhetoric, she nevertheless takes as a given what might have been viewed by rhetoric scholars as his wilder assertion: that animals—not just human ones—practice rhetoric. And not just rhetoric, but Aristotelian rhetoric. These creatures practice, according to Kennedy, deliberative, judicial, and epideictic rhetoric (1992, 5, 12). They deploy ethos, pathos, and logos (1992, 15). They gesture and preen, sing and growl. And yet even premised on such traditional categories, Kennedy’s attention to animals yields three crucial challenges to rhetorical theory: first, it shifts attention from “wordy” language to language rendered with calls, tones, facial expressions, and bodies. 2 Second, it posits rhetoric as energetic intensity, a movement, or an urge to move others (1992, 2–3). And finally, the speaker or author takes a back seat to the audience. Or better said, the speaker is kicked to the curb. 3

When scholars have...