The agency of the rhetor in kairotic moments

In my first post this semester I wrote about Kairos—addressing, in particular, whether or not celebrity status and/or pop culture can actually create it—yet I want to return to this topic one more time, in light of Leigh’s presentation this past week on kairos and blogging, as well as Chanon’s question which, if I remember correctly, was asking if there is a rhetorical theory or any work that has been done on the factors that are needed to create kairos. Leigh took the position, based off her research, that people do not have the ability to create kairos (which I found interesting considering what I wrote about in my first post).  I’m not sure I agree with the fact that we can’t create kairos.  But, even if we can’t, what are the implications of this? The most obvious one is that we then only have the ability to respond to kairotic moments. Yet this implication raises another (perhaps not so obvious) one: the need to answer the question regarding who is able (or perhaps more fit/better prepared/more competent/or even simply allowed) to respond to kairotic moments? To me it seems that, even if we don’t have the power to create kairos—if this is out of our control—there are certain people who more able than others to  respond to and take control of it:  for example, Lady Gaga in my first post. In the case of Gaga, I would say that her fan base (the millions upon millions of which there are) certainly gave her power to take control of—and use to her advantage—the kairotic moment in which she spoke about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. In other words, Gaga’s audience legitimated and gave her power, or more power anyway, to take political advantage of this right time to speak.

Although a far distant example from Gaga, I’m currently trying to think of the role that kairos played in the arenas in which Frederick Douglass spoke and what gave him the power to take such control of kairotic moments and use them to his advantage. As with Gaga, it seems like audience is huge for Douglass. For example, in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he recounts how at the time that he gave a commencement address, it was not his decision to use his “carefully-studied and written address, full of learned quotations” that pulled off a well-received speech but rather the audience expectation that he talk more extemporaneously (RT 1083).  Even though Douglass, as he notes, usually depended more on his “unsystematized knowledge”, I find it interesting that the audience decides which is more effective—systematized of unsystematized knowledge. It is, in other words, audience expectations that controls and makes more powerful Douglass’s rhetoric in the kairotic moment (in the similar way to how audience control—their love or hate of her—legitimated and assigned power to Gaga’s actions within the kairotic moment in which she spoke out).

The point that I want to make out of all of this is that we may need to be more conscious of how and why someone is able to act, be recognized, and gain power within a kairotic moment. Is it the agency of the rhetor—herself—that is guiding her actions or is it the expectations of the audience. In many circumstances, I think audience expectations are a good thing and should be the driving factor of how we respond to kairos. For example, in my writing center work, a good consultation is one in which my actions within different kairtic moments during the session are driven by the audience that is the student writer—it is her expectations that set the parameters for how I interact with her and respond to her writing. In the classroom, I would like to say that the same is true most of the time—my actions are directed by the needs of the audience within kairotic moments.  Yet at same time, I am led to question how much agency the rhetors actually has within a kairotic moments: which actions are their’s alone and which ones are propelled by what seems to be the audience alone.

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One Response to The agency of the rhetor in kairotic moments

  1. leighgruwell says:

    I’m so geeking out right now- I can’t believe someone else has followed me down this kairos rabbit hole!

    The question of how much agency is at stake in a kairotic moment is a really complicated one, and I’m glad you brought it up. I don’t want to suggest that rhetors have no agency; instead, I think that agency is exercised precisely when the kairotic moment presents itself. Each agent operates in response to complicated networks of power and language. How much of that response is determined by factors exterior to the rhetor depends on each situation, I think. Obviously someone with a lot of power will find it easier to locate and seize kairotic moments than someone with less access to them, such as Frederick Douglass. But because he responded in such a remarkable way helps to distinguish him as an excellent rhetor. Even someone like Gaga is successful, in part, because she anticipates the next big thing. Living on the cutting edge is kairotic, no? I think we’re on the same page here as far as kairos, but maybe just standing on different sides of the margin 🙂

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