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  • Creaturely Rhetorics
  • Diane Davis

In a 1917 essay entitled “A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis,” Freud suggests that modern science has dealt three devastating blows to human pride: the Copernican revelation that the earth revolves around the sun, decentering man’s presumed cosmological place in the universe as “lord of the world”; the Darwinian revelation that man shares a common ancestor with apes, which indicates that he is not inherently “a being different from animals or superior to them”; and the Freudian revelation that consciousness is mostly ruled by the unconscious, which indicates that the ego is not master of “its own house” (1957–74, 139–41). Of these narcissistic wounds, each still gaping today, the second most interests us here, specifically inasmuch as its panicked deflection continues to ground contemporary theories of rhetoric.

It’s true that the myth of the knowing and speaking subject who understands the world and communicates that understanding with eloquence and grace has been massively and probably permanently interrupted by, among other things, the first and third of these revelations. However, even the most sophisticated posthumanist theories of symbolic exchange, those fully embracing the Copernican and Freudian revelations, tend (explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously) to refuse the Darwinian revelation, along with its philosophical and—more to the point for us—rhetorical implications. Heidegger, Lacan, and Levinas, for example, each articulate a strictly human(ist) description of the language relation, presuming that the gulf that separates “the human” from “the animal” is uncrossable, having something to do with the former’s capacity for language and the latter’s captivation by its environment, or by the imaginary, or by “its own being,” respectively. 1 And rhetorical studies on the whole agrees: rhetoric, at the very least, requires an engagement with the symbolic. This engagement, while it defines the human (“the symbol-using animal”), is what nonhuman animals purportedly lack. [End Page 88]

George A. Kennedy, of course, famously disagrees. In “A Hoot in the Dark,” a seminal essay that should also have been pathbreaking, and the follow-up book Comparative Rhetoric, Kennedy reframes the argument, suggesting that rhetoric, “in its essence,” is not a specifically human art or science but “a form of mental and emotional energy” that is “biologically prior to speech and to conscious intentionality” (1998, 3–4, 26). This rhetorical energy expresses itself in emotional reactions (fear, anger, lust, etc.), and its most probable source is “the instinct for self-preservation,” Kennedy surmises, “which in turn derives from nature’s impulse to preserve the genetic line” (1998, 3–4). Citing Darwin and other evolutionary biologists, he argues that this universal form of rhetoric is the condition both for various forms of animal communication (via gesture, facial expression, song, and so on) and for the development of a more complex and sophisticated human rhetoric. “In fact,” Kennedy writes, “rhetoric is manifest in all animal life and existed long before the evolution of human beings” (1992, 4). So according to him, animals and humans “share a ‘deep’ natural rhetoric”—“deep” meaning that we share it at the level of DNA (1998, 13). Rhetoric, from this evolutionary perspective, “is a natural phenomenon: the potential for it exists in all life forms that can give signals” (4); indeed, it “has to exist in the speaker before speech can take place” (1992, 4). What Kennedy gleans from the sociobiological frame, in other words, is that rhetoric has a “natural” dimension to which rhetorical studies has not attended, a dimension that he insists is vividly exposed in evolutionary biology.

I applaud Kenney’s embrace of what I’ve been calling the Darwinian revelation and wholeheartedly agree that rhetoric, at its most elemental, takes place at the level of the creature. However, it is no more productive to dismiss philosophical revelations than it is to dismiss scientific ones. The appeal to nature or to a “natural rhetoric,” no matter how species-leveling it may at first seem, remains a recuperative, deflective move that protects a fairly standard anthropocentric approach to rhetorical theory. I would like to argue instead that the “mental and emotional energy” that Kennedy calls “rhetoric” is itself dependent on an always prior rhetoricity, an affectab...


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