Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Rhetoric of Now Part 2: Kairos

Cross-posed at Daily Kos.

This is the second in a series of posts on how concepts from rhetoric can be used to help transform the current political climate. For a broader context, see the first entry (on stasis theory). Today's entry is on kairos.

Kairos is usually defined as something like opportunity. James Kinneavy, who has done more than anyone in modern times to revive the concept, defines it succinctly in an interview as "the right time and due measure." But kairos was also a minor god. So take a moment, would you, to look at this bas-relief of the figure of kairos. Take your time; I'll wait.

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Back? Great. Look at him closely: he's got wings, and winged feet. He's coming fast; if he's headed your way, you have a moment to grab his extended forelock. But watch out! Once he's past you you can't grab on, because the back of his head is shaved. Strangely, he's balancing a scales on a razor blade, weighting one pan of the scales with his hand. Kairos, in other words, is not just opportunity; he is balance and dance, measure and cut, available only to those who face him right and grab when they can.

While I was writing this diary, it occurred to me that kairos might be behind the name of Keyser Soze, the legendary criminal in The Usual Suspects. As Verbal Kent says (before we find out who he is):

You think you can catch Keyser Soze? You think a guy like that comes this close to getting caught, and sticks his head out? If he comes up for anything it'll be to get rid of me. After that... my guess is you'll never hear from him again.

As Sharon Crowley and Deborah Hawhee explain, "The Greeks had two concepts of time. They used the term chronos to refer to linear, measurable time, the kind with which we are more familiar, that we track with watches and calendars. But the ancients used kairos to suggest a more situational kind of time, something close to what we call 'opportunity.'" But it's a lot more than that.

In Christian theology, kairos is associated with a kind of ripeness of time, a moment when things are ready. When Jesus says, "The kingdom of God is at hand," he's talking in kairos terms. In the South African struggle against apartheid, this notion was essential to the Kairos Document:

The time has come. The moment of truth has arrived. South Africa has been plunged into a crisis that is shaking the foundations and there is every indication that the crisis has only just begun and that it will deepen and become even more threatening in the months to come. It is the KAIROS or moment of truth not only for apartheid but also for the Church.

We as a group of theologians have been trying to understand the theological significance of this moment in our history. It is serious, very serious. For very many Christians in South Africa this is the KAIROS, the moment of grace and opportunity, the favorable time in which God issues a challenge to decisive action. It is a dangerous time because, if this opportunity is missed, and allowed to pass by, the loss for the Church, for the Gospel and for all the people of South Africa will be immeasurable. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. He wept over the tragedy of the destruction of the city and the massacre of the people that was imminent, "and all because you did not recognize your opportunity (KAIROS) when God offered it" (Lk 19: 44).


In "Against the Sophists," Isocrates argues that oratory is quite different from mere literacy, in part because it relies on the contingency of kairos.

I marvel when I observe these men setting themselves up as instructors of youth who cannot see that they are applying the analogy of an art with art and fast rules to a creative process. For, excepting these teachers, who does not know that the art of using letters remains fixed and unchanged, so that we continually and invariably use the same letters for the same purpose, while exactly the reverse is true of the art of discourse? For what has been said by one speaker is not equally useful for the speaker who comes after him; on the contrary, he accounted most skilled in this art who speaks in a manner worthy of the subject and yet is able to discover in it topics which are nowise the same as those used by others. But the greatest proof of the difference between the two arts is that oratory is good only if it has the qualities of fitness for the occasion, propriety of style, and originality of treatment, while in the case of letters there is no such need whatsoever. (Emphasis added)


I want to avoid a possible misunderstanding here. This notion of "fitness for the occasion" isn't primarily about style, about shifting accents in different speeches; it has nothing to do with that kind of minor accommodation to an audience. Kairos is more essential to discourse than this: it is about recognizing that different moments evoke different responses and then seizing the moment in its totality.

Here is an important question: Is kairos responsive or inventive? That is, is kairos a matter of grabbing hold of opportunities inherent within situations, or of creating opportunities out of situations?
The former, narrow reading is understandable. It views the rhetorical actor in the passive terms of response. In the current American political scene, most candidates seem to take this kind of posture, expending most of their energies on situations that we already recognize as urgent: how to get out of Iraq, how to correct the recent acceleration of economic injustice, how to stem the tide of corruption. These are obvious questions.

A more capacious reading of kairos suggests that opportunities are made, not just recognized. This kind of reading was crucial to the civil rights movement. For example, in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King, Jr. responds to those who think his protest is ill-timed:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. (Emphasis added)


If we view kairos in this fashion, as something we invent and imagine together rather than simply a situation to which we respond, what are American politicians today missing? What can they learn, not just from Dr. King's actions, but from his imagination? I'm sure we can all think of some. I'll just mention a few.

First, increased foreign aid and debt relief as part of a security strategy. American politicians hate to talk about foreign aid, but I think they're missing a lot here. Discussion of immigration tends to resolve into predictable camps defined by xenophobia on the one hand and compassion on the other. But to my knowledge, nobody has seen fit to emphasize how improving conditions in countries that send immigrant labor to the U.S. could make conditions more tolerable in the home countries, and relieve some of the pressure that drives them north in the first place. This in turn could make the job of border security less impossible and might have the knock-on effect of reducing the depressive influence of undocumented labor on American wages.

Second, how to respond to the imminent housing collapse. This isn't that big yet, but it's likely to get big, and I haven't seen any of the candidates out in front of it. The first candidate to grab hold of this issue in terms of protecting low-income homeowners (not real estate agents or lenders) will change the shape of debate.

Third, how to rehabilitate public transportation. In American politics, highways are big, and trains are boring. But the climate change crisis demands radical solutions, and I'm amazed that nobody has come out with a radical transportation proposal that will help decrease our dependence on highways in an environmentally friendly manner.

Well, these are a few of my unaddressed issues. I'm just an English teacher; other people, who know something about economics and such, will have much better ideas. The point is that we have to quit responding and start creating. The time is ripe. But we need politicians who can imagine a plausible future, and challenge us to imagine it with them. We need politicians who are capable of seizing the moment by making it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very well said. thank you for helping to increase our understanding of Kairos.