George Kennedy “Comparative Rhetoric”

In Comparative Rhetoric, George Kennedy offers an evolutionary model of rhetoric, beginning with animals, moving in chronological time to “non-literate” cultures, or “societies without writing,” and ending with ancient ‘literate” societies, the apex of which is ancient Greece and Rome. Relying on histories largely constructed by white historians, in this part of his book, Kennedy attempts to demonstrate that in all ancient cultures, rhetoric, as a mental or emotional energy, which impels the speaker to [coded] expression , is largely a conservative action employed to preserve the best interests of the rhetor, on both an individual and community level. In this sense, Kennedy argues, rhetoric has a universal function in ancient cultures, although it is manifested in various ways depending on the culture.

Kennedy’s controversial text is important, that cannot be debated. As the first reknown cross-cultural study of the rhetorical traditions of different societies from around the world, Kennedy’s text delineates what he sees as the four objectives of comparative rhetoric:

a.) use comparative methods to identify what is universal and what is distinctive about any one rhetorical tradition in comparison with others.

b.) Formulate a general theory of rhetoric that will apply to all societies.

c.) Develop and test Greco-Roman rhetorical structures and theories used to describe cross cultural practices.

d.) Apply lessons from cross-cultural practices to contemporary cross-cultural communication.

Although these well-intended objectives have helped to spark the emerging and exciting field of cultural rhetorics, and thus a field, we are indebted to Kennedy’s work, these objectives in premise and practice are problematic. As numerous scholars have noted, Kennedy’s text can be identified as what Scott Lyons calls “rhetorical imperialism.” One reason Lyons himself charges Kennedy’s book with rhetorical imperialism is for presenting an evolutionary study of language, which positions Indians below the apex of Greeks and Romans—a concern Lipson and Binkley also share in Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks and one that I share as well. As Said reminds us, imperialism is accomplished and/or enacted not only by soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings (“Cutlure and Imperialism 8). Reifying the Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition as the apex of ancient rhetoric and literacy reifies the West as the center of intellectual thought and civilization.

Rather than reifying the evolutionary model of rhetoric, what Kennedy might have done is offered a coevolutionary model emphasized by Mignolo. Or lately, I have been thinking a lot about the Two Row Wampum treaty belt as a metaphor for a methodology of comparative rhetoric. On the Two Row Wampum belt, “the purple row of beads represents the path of the natives’ canoe which contains their customs and laws. The other row represents the path of the Whiteman’s vessel, the sailing ship, which contains his customs and laws. The meaning of the parallel paths is that neither boat should out pace the other, and the paths should remain separate and parallel forever, that is, as long as the grass grows, the rivers flow, the sun shines, and will be everlasting, and they shall always renew their treaties.” One of my students the other day iterated that also embedded in the wampum belt is the understanding that neither vessel will capsize the other. How can comparative rhetoric perform a cross-cultural study of the rhetorical practices of distinct cultures without capsizing one or the other?

As Lyons notes, one of the ways in which American Indian cultures get capsized in Kennedy’s book is by the omission of representations of 19th century American Indian writing (459). This omission, based supposedly on stereotypes of Indian as oral creature and savage, might conclude reader to think “a writing Indian is no Indian at all” (459). Lyons also charges Kennedy with erasing “real Indians” and making ” a connecting link” between rhetoric of animals and oral humans, which Lyons claims would lead uncritical reader to link American Indians to animals, a link that was at the heart of scientific racism. Locating Indians early on in the “Chain of Speaking,” Lyons argues, is dehumanizing and “suggests that today’s Indian people’s are probably not real anymore” (460).

In addition, as Lyons also makes clear, Kennedy’s text, divided into two parts—“Rhetoric in Socities without Writing” and “Rhetoric in Ancient Literate Societies”—reifies the oral-literate binary. This reification not only capsizes those cultures Kennedy designates as “non-literate,” but also capsizes rhetorical practices that do not fit traditional Western standards of rhetoric. How is Kennedy defining language here? How is Kennedy defining literacy? How is he defining writing? How is his book upholding Greco-Roman rhetoric as the center of our discipline by basing claims on his definitions of language, literacy, and writing?

Also, as is explicitly clear in the his chapter “Rhetoric in Ancient China,” how is Kennedy upholding Greco-Roman rhetoric as the idealized standard of rhetoric by comparing rhetorical practices of ancient China with the Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition? Robert Oliver, in his chapter Culture and rhetorics, identifies Plato’s “insistance upon ‘knowing the truth about the subject,’ and thence proceeding to ‘isolate it in definition’ and ‘to divide it into kinds’ is based upon a particular view of the nature of truth and a particular concept of psychology” (8). I can’t help but see Kennedy proceeding with his comparative analysis along similiar lines. Kennedy’s tendency to identify ancient Chinese rhetorics based on Western conceptions of rhetoric causes him to attempt to describe ancient Chinese rhetorical speeches and practices within the framework of Western rhetorical theory by:

  • demonstrating how ancient Chinese speeches fit mold of Greek rhetorical structures (proemium, narration, proof, and epilogue, ethos, pathos, logos, deliberative, judicial, and epideictic);
  • making judgments about ancient Chinese rhetoric based on western conceptions of “system,”
    “art,” and “argument”–evident in claims such as “Confucius was less systematic [than Socrates] and did not develop a system of argument” (153);
  • by always measuring and qualifying ancient Chinese rhetorical standards to Greco-Roman standards, evident in claims such as: “In classical Chinese, the word pien, literally ‘to till apart,’ thus ‘to distinguish,’ ‘to argue,’ or ‘argument,’ …is probably the closest approximation to ‘rhetoric’ as understood in Greece: It can refer to an art of persuasion including understanding of audience psychology, as well as moral and rtional actions in the inerest of social order (Lu 1999), but lacks [my emphasis] the connotation of artistic composition or style, which ‘rhetoric’ often carries in the West” (143).

By studying Ancient Chinese rhetoric in such ways, Kennedy upholds Greco-Roman rhetoric as the ideal rhetoric to be compared to and whose concepts and theories other cultures’ rhetorical practices should be explained.





Filed under cultural rhetorics exam, historiography exam

3 responses to “George Kennedy “Comparative Rhetoric”

  1. bjbailie

    I’m glad I stopped by your blog this morning. My general dislike of Kennedy’s book led me to downplay (in my mind) his stated objectives. When you place those obejectives in the foreground, it doesn’t excuse the rhetorical imperialism, but it does make for a stunning example of how disciplinary boundaries are developed.

  2. Another difficulty that accompanies Kennedy’s rhetorical imperialism is akin to Foucault’s concern at Noam Chomski’s use of the term ‘human nature.’ We tend to use ‘nature’ as a kind of justification and template for things we value in a way that winds up positivist and abusive.

  3. I’m also glad I stopped by. I like your blog’s openness to ambivalence, and the lack of insistence upon reconciliations and resolutions. Very clear presentation of Kennedy’s comparative project as well as its problems. To me, the beauties of rhetorical study include the rich variety of ways it can help pacify one’s tendencies to totalize, reify, objectivize, and marginalize.

    “I’ll be back!”

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