Aug 30, 2017
This last year I adopted a dog, a scruffy grey schnauzer mix. I call him Pip. I talk to Pip all the time. But I don’t expect Pip to talk back to me, and I don’t think about what Pip calls himself. Maybe I should. The rhetorical power of non-human animals, this week on Mere Rhetoric.
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginner and indisers about the people, ideas and movements who have shaped rhetprical history. I’m Mary Hedengren
Today we start a new type of episode of Mere Rhetoric. In the past, I’ve given you the low-down on books and movements, scholars and terms, and now I’m going to expand on that to give you the heads-up on some of the most recent issues of major journals in the field. Consider it a sort of Reading Rainbow, a teaser-taster of what’s showing up in rhetorical scholarship today.
Reading journals is one of those activities that I was encouraged to do when I first became a grad student in rhetoric and I’m always surprised how useful what I read ends up being: sometimes I find scholarship that relates directly to what I’m working on, sometimes I find stuff that comes up in conversation, but it’s rare that I regret reading an issue. I recommend reading them to everyone interested in the field, partially because it gives a good sense of what our field actually is these days.
The first issue I’m going to feature, I’m willing to admit though, is a little weird. It’s a the special issue of Rhetoric Society Quarterly that came out this summer, and special issue usually means that there’s a theme that all of the articles are about, but even this special issue is special--it’s a Quote rhetorical bestiary unquote. A bestiary is a sort of encyclopedia of the animals, usually loose on the science and loaded on moralizing for a human world, but this rhetorical bestiary is specifically trying to break away from a human-centric orientation towards entering with animals more on their terms.
Within the bestiary, there are mini-essays on children raised by wolves, salmon spawning, a town full of roosting vultures and the cunning of snakes. These essays are an unusual lot for a scholarly journal: rich, imaginative, personal and poetic. They are grounded in theory, but are also beholden to activism, creative writing, and --as might be expected--animal behaviorism. One impetus for this collection is the 25th anniversary of George A. Kennedy’s “A Hoot in the Dark” article in Philosophy and Rhetoric.
Kennedy’s “Hoot in the Dark” isn’t included here, but it’s worth checking out on its own merits. George Kennedy was a tweedy classical rhetorician, translating, for example, the definite edition of Aristotle’s rhetoric. So it was a bit of surprise in 1992, when he argued that rhetoric is not an exclusively human endeavour, but that rhetoric “is manifest in all animal life and [that] existed long before the evolution of human beings” (4)... for instance “A rattlesnake’s rhetoric consists of coiling or uncoiling itself, threatening to strike and rattling its tail, which other creatures hear, even though a rattle-snake [sic] is itself deaf” (13). Pretty wild stuff. And the response, as Diane Davis writes in her afterward for the bestiary, “was to basically wonder what Kennedy had been smoking” (277).
But even if Kennedy’s work was out of character, some rhetorical scholars embraced the non-human animal turn. For instance Debra Hawhee, who also writes an afterword for the issue, has written such works like Rhetoric in Tooth and Claw and Moving Bodies, which explores “the places in rhetorical theory that are infested with nonhuman animals” (“towards a bestial rhetoric” 86). Looking at non-human animal rhetoric is a humbling practice that opens up our field and colors our received rhetorical traditions.
That being said,I was most impressed by the foreword by Alex C. Parrish and the afterwards by Hawhee and Diane Davis. Davis’ afterward is espeically illuminating in highlighting that “there is no single, indivisible line between ‘the human’ and ‘the animal’” (278). She also provides a useful dichotomy between two threads in researching non-human animals in rhetoric. One is “studying human discourses about other animal species” --the way we use non-human animals in our human rhetoric--while the other involved “engaging the specific rhetorical practices of other species” (279). This latter area of research is particularly interesting to me.
When Pip barks at a strange dog, or drops his ears backwards, or lulls his tongue out in a squinty-eyed smile, he is using symbols just as effectively as Burke’s “symbol using (symbol making and symbol misusing)” human agent. I mean, I can testify that he symbol misuses all the time, especially in his clumsy attempts to make friends at the dog park. Dogs are especially interesting because they are attuned to cross species communication: for millenia, they’ve been learning to read our weird symbols, like me pointing to Pip’s crate, and respond with their own communication, like Pip’s resulting “hangdog” expression. It’s almost like he’s telling me “I don’t want to go to my room.” But sometimes when you discuss communication with, or among, animals, you’ll be accused of anthropomorphism. Certain, I don’t think Pip communicates the same things in the same ways as he would if he were another human, but, as Davis points out, instead of throwing around accusations of anthropomorphism, we would be better served by recognizing that communication is beyond the “anthro” and rather something inherent in creatures that live in proximity with other creatures.
If you have a great dog story, or other kind of animal communication story, why not drop us a line at Mererhetoricpodcast@gmail.com? Also, let me know what kind of journals you’d like me to be checking in with. I can’t promise I’ll read every issue of every rhetoric journal for you because there’s a lot out there--and you don’t have to take my word for it.