BMCR 1998.02.13

98.2.13, Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction

, Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. ix, 238.

George Kennedy will be familiar to almost any student of rhetoric or ancient literary criticism. He has written or edited several oft-cited works on the subject, such as The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World, 300 B.C.-A.D. 300 (Princeton 1972), Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (North Carolina 1980), and the first volume of the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism (1989). Now emerges what looks like the culmination of years of thought about rhetoric on a broad scale, as the subtitle explains, and Kennedy’s reputation places him on a pedestal from which praise from someone of my station would scarcely be audible; however, this review will not be the encomium that might be expected.

The book contains nine chapters and a conclusion, with chapter titles such as “Rhetoric among Social Animals,” Rhetoric in Aboriginal Australian Culture,” “North American Indian Rhetoric,” and “Rhetoric in Ancient India.” In textbook-like style, the chapters are sketches of scholarship on the topics addressed, with subsequent lists of references and bibliographies—further indications that this might be intended as a textbook.

At the start, Kennedy wants everyone aware of what’s ahead: “Comparative Rhetoric is the cross-cultural study of rhetorical traditions as they exist or have existed in different societies around the world” (1). He is out to “identify what is universal” in order “to formulate a General Theory of Rhetoric that will apply in all societies. This would be the innate or ‘deep’ rhetorical faculty that we all share ….” The babel of tongues in the world can be reduced to a General Rhetoric. Such an attempt at universality and generality sounds daunting, until Kennedy excuses himself: “Neither I nor any one else I know of is competent to give an authoritative account of the rhetorical practices of these many different cultures, primarily because no one has the requisite knowledge of the many languages and societies of the world” (2). Despite this self-knowledge and standard use of adynaton, Kennedy forges ahead with the project, and declares that he will offer a “new” approach, suggesting implicitly that this approach will give us the truth about rhetoric. For instance, he argues “that rhetoric is a natural phenomenon” (4), like a bird call, and this claim turns out to be a subset of a larger view that rhetoric is part of Darwinian evolution, and that there is an “evolution of speech” (31, cf. opening of chapter 1). On Kennedy’s model human beings move from harsh, brutish, instinctive sounds to conscious reflection on the uses of language, from emitting energetic signs of self-preservation to practicing self-consciously rhetoric and philosophy.

However, “[T]he scholars of hominid history are uncovering a constantly larger past in which the earlier members of our species continually appear to be smarter, more accomplished, more adept, and more complex than we had previously believed…. We have no way of knowing what the verbal arts of 35,000 years ago might have been. It is most likely that the languages of that time were in no way inferior in complexity, sophistication, or richness to the languages spoken today”. 1 Gary Snyder comes to this conclusion based on some exchanges with the eminent linguist William Bright. The point is, at the very least, that Kennedy’s supercessionist, or call it progressivist, history of linguistic usage is in dispute. Furthermore, appropriating Darwin for a more accurate, scientific view ignores evidence that indicates Darwin’s own evolutionary theory emerged, in part, from 19th-century language theory. Gillian Beer explains: “[M]uch important nineteenth-century scientific work, particularly that of Lyell in geology and Darwin in evolutionary theory, drew upon the new models of language development”. 2 Thus, on one reading, Kennedy’s book replays 19th-century debates about language.

Through much of the book, Kennedy acts as a kind of rhetorical anthropologist, surveying numerous “traditional cultures,” and finding that linguistically, these cultures are neither alien nor “exotic,” but that they too can be seen to be practicing rhetoric to one degree or another. On the anthropological side of the issue, Kennedy comes down squarely in the world of Edward Evans-Pritchard, the English anthropologist best known for his study of the Azande tribe, a work which Kennedy cites. Kennedy’s take on the Azande is symptomatic of much of his treatment of the societies he calls “nonliterate.” Evans-Pritchard, unable to help being a 20th-century intellectual who knows about science, sees the Azande as “primitive” in the sense that the tribe’s members believe in magic. Kennedy opts for the phrase “traditional society” rather than “primitive society,” though the upshot of the description tends to be the same, given, for instance, that this discussion appears in a section labeled “Formal Speech in Some Nonliterate Cultures.” What we learn is that “our” views of language are far in advance of the Azande, or for any of the other groups in the section, and thus can be subject to Kennedy’s categorizations and analyses of the “deep” rhetorical faculties “we” all share. Perhaps here it would be appropriate to recall Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough“: “Identifying one’s own gods with the gods of other peoples. One convinces oneself that the names have the same meaning”. 3 Replace the word “gods” with “rhetoric” in Wittgenstein’s first sentence, and you have Wittgenstein speaking prudently to Kennedy.

In considering the Azande through the lens of Evans-Pritchard, Kennedy does not address Peter Winch’s reply to Evans-Pritchard in a famous essay entitled “Understanding a Primitive Society”, 4 which makes a compelling case for babel; that is, that there are multiple languages, and it won’t do to import into one language a concept of rationality (read: rhetoric) that has application only in one other. Winch does not endorse cultural relativism. Rather, he hopes to serve notice that describing other cultures in “our” own terms risks making “our” terms the only conceivable ones. Evaluating other cultures according to the posited universal criteria in a General Rhetoric will likely mean that one finds rhetoric everywhere, just as one presupposed, even in places where people know nothing of rhetoric. Kennedy anticipates this argument: “I have no desire to impose Western notions of rhetoric on an understanding of other cultures. Indeed, my objective is rather the opposite: to modify Western notions by comparison with other traditions in the interests of coming to an understanding of rhetoric as a more general phenomenon of human life” (217). Yet, on the very next page, Kennedy writes, “Exclusively oral societies usually think in specific terms and feel little need to erect systems of abstract thought. Their religion too is primarily mythological, not philosophical. Abstract, theoretical thought and precepts about rhetoric, as about philosophy, politics, and nature, are developments of literate societies…” (218). Rhetoric becomes a system superior to every utterance that it makes possible. A “General Rhetoric” calls for grand generalizations, and, at times, Kennedy catches himself in excess: “Generalization about traditional North American Indian rhetoric is difficult because much of the evidence comes from white sources or from speeches intended to influence whites and because of differences among Indian cultures” (108). The announced goal is “to formulate a General Theory of Rhetoric that will apply in all societies,” regardless of differences among them, Indian or otherwise. When dealing with rhetoric on a universal scale in a little over 200 pages, there’s little time to pause for particulars that might function as speed bumps.

“Finally, I have been much impressed by the generally conservative function of rhetoric all over the world, which seems to help confirm my suggestion that rhetoric has its origin in the instinct for self-preservation and is a form of energy transmitted through signs to persuade an audience to act in securing or preserving the best interests of the speaker,” (230) contends Kennedy, even if it’s not clear that objections would arise to this fairly conservative, common sensical view. My own sense is that once Kennedy posits rhetoric’s ubiquity without exploring counter-arguments, his case is made for him. With a view that human speech arises “out of already existing primate practices” (33), Kennedy declares himself an evolutionist, more scientist than rhetorician. “Human languages developed from animal communication” (43). Strangely, this does not lead him to Heideggerian-like questions, 5 such as: What does it mean that language is not anything human? What does it mean to think that experience with language never occurs in the speaking of it? Language, on Kennedy’s view, is a byproduct of experience. A human needs to warn others about X, and so the human yells. Or the human has certain self-interests best served by a certain kind of talking to a particular audience, a kind of talking that has been successful in obtaining results in the past, and so might work again in a new circumstance. The evolutionist has a theory of language, focused on control and the production of predictable consequences, that experiences with language do not verify. That is why the Tower of Babel is not an evolutionist’s story, but his enemy’s. Kennedy proffers not babel, but an Esperanto he calls “General Rhetoric.”

1. Gary Snyder, “Entering the Fiftieth Millennium” in Profession 1997, ed. Phyllis Franklin (New York: Modern Language Association of American, 1997), pp. 35, 39.

2. Gillian Beer, Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 97.

3. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Occasions, ed. James Klagge and Alfred Nordmann (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), p. 131.

4. Peter Winch, “Understanding a Primitive Society,”American Philosophical Quarterly, 1, no. 4 (October 1964): 307-24.

5. For more on this view, see Gerald L. Bruns, Heidegger’s Estrangements: Language, Truth, and Poetry in the Later Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).