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Composition Forum 38, Spring 2018

Review of Debra Hawhee’s Rhetoric in Tooth and Claw: Animals, Language, Sensation

Christopher Justice

Hawhee, Debra. Rhetoric in Tooth and Claw: Animals, Language, Sensation. U of Chicago P, 2017. 256pp.

Have you ever experienced a criticism that felt like a “kick” in the gut? A “biting” remark that “stung” your soul? “Claw” your way out of a problem? “Bull” your way through a book? Or “groom” a student for debate? According to Debra Hawhee, these words and their rhetorical weight are not simply examples of zoostylistics, or the study of ways animals are used as metaphors or images. For Hawhee, something more rhetorically potent occurs when such words are used: she moves beyond mere representation to argue that these words represent material energies that evoke emotions that instigate physical movement within audiences.

Drawing upon George Kennedy’s idea that rhetoric is “an energy existing in life” (5, 13-14), a notion derivative of the classical idea of actio, Hawhee argues that rhetoric evokes a force that transcends language and is embodied in sensations. Animals, according to her, have long been the material agents that humans have used to inspire and instigate those sensations. Consequently, she offers readers an alternative to rhetoric’s history, which has framed logos as rhetoric’s soul. Instead, Hawhee revises this history by re-examining animals’ roles in classical texts—fables, natural histories, encomia, and teaching manuals—to reveal how energy, particularly the kinds inspired by animals, exists at least adjacently to logos, if not more prominently in rhetoric’s soul.

Hawhee not only challenges the hierarchy that has situated humans as superior to non-humans, but she “shows humans and nonhumans mutually assessing dispositions and altering their own in response” (2). She does this by revealing how animals “animate” our senses through their kinetic energy and are not just represented in ancient texts about rhetoric, but are uniquely imbricated in rhetorical acts. For Hawhee, rhetoric has not been relied upon enough to inform, as Derrida would state, questions of the animal. Rhetoric has for too long ignored animals even though, she argues, “rhetoric has made its way on the backs of animality” (4). Although Hawhee doesn’t delve into current discussions about actor-network theory, new materialism, object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, or related object-based ontologies, her work here is equally prescient because she frames animals not as passively represented signs in rhetoric’s history, but instead as active agents that have shaped the field’s history in overlooked ways and constructed rhetors throughout history in distinct manners.

Hawhee’s method for this study is a unique one she calls a “pan-historiography.” This approach unfolds as a study spanning a lengthy timeframe that doesn’t follow a strict chronological order. Rather, Hawhee chops up time in chunks, examining each separate chunk chronologically although the chunks themselves don’t follow a distinct order. This allows her to move back and forth through classical and medieval rhetoric seamlessly, letting trends, patterns, and unique movements in the treatment of animals in texts guide her. In this sense, her timeframe lacks a specific beginning or ending, instead focusing on “an expansive view of a cultural/disciplinary trend” (8) and specific treatments of animals’ “durability and also change” (8).

In chapter one, Hawhee subverts some of the most cherished principles that have distinguished humans from nonhumans. Her challenge here, one she never fully overcomes, is that these distinctions are cultural; scientifically, there is no distinction between humans and animals: both are animal species. Nevertheless, for her, rationality has only been given a binary counterpart: nonrationality. Similarly, while Aristotle helped solidify the hierarchy between humans and animals by claiming it was logos that made humans superior and alogos that made animals inferior, Hawhee cleverly argues that alogos is not defined by an absence of language, but rather is an eccentric capacity itself. Alogos is an attribution, something animals possess, not lack. Animals do not lack logos, but rather in its place communicate—and help humans communicate—through sensation. Animal “discourse” in this sense is not linguistic, but kinetic and articulated through “sounds, shapes, textures, and movements” (14). Equally important, animals animate and enliven language through this alogos. Hawhee sees sensation, feeling, and emotion as the “positive counterpoints to rationality” and logos (7).

Although Hawhee’s intentions are commendable, because she does much to bridge the gap between representation and materiality, she still limits animal rhetoric and discourse. She argues that while humans have logos, animals have alogos, but she never adequately addresses the converse: Don’t humans also have alogos? And if so, what kinds of human alogos are instigated by animals? And what kinds are not? Perhaps more importantly, how do human activities and language influence animal rhetorics? Leaving these questions not only unanswered, but never articulated, seems amiss.

More critically, animals do not possess our human-based notion of logos, and scholars in fields such as biosemiotics and those who have examined animal marking systems such as Diane Davis and Byron Hawk, among others, would argue that animals possess more rhetorical abilities than just alogos. This is not to belittle the value of alogos because it is valuable as Hawhee potently demonstrates, but animals communicate much more complexly beyond sensation. Hawhee’s inability to take what I call the “grammatological plunge”—or the leap toward identifying and analyzing animal marking systems and their ability to influence human and animals’ rhetorical behavior—is a misstep. I am thinking specifically here, for example, of how deer mark trees and how those marks influence hunters. Or, how certain species of fish mark underwater terrains to build nests and how those marks influence other animal species’ behaviors. Hawhee’s dismissal of actual, material forms of animal “writing” leave her argument primarily rooted in the anthropocentric confines of human rhetoric. She is mainly interested in how animals inspire human language that causes sensations and emotions in humans: Why not investigate inter-species communicative behaviors and how animals cause sensations in other animals? In short, why limit an admittedly provocative discovery of animals’ rhetorical skills on their effects on humans only?

Sensation, Hawhee argues, is akin to how one determines potential. For example, when a dog growls, the sound allows one to register a message—the dog is probably angry—and prompts one to act, in this case most likely withdrawing from the dog. In this sense, sensation forces us to transform our literal positions. Sensation is integral to rhetorical theory and education, especially since so much of rhetoric’s foundation is based upon sense-based activities such as rhythm, sound, and movement. Interestingly, drawing upon Aristotle’s notion that logos helps humans institute a fair or unfair, just or unjust, moral or immoral world, a notion crucial for the establishment of political bodies and cities, Hawhee takes the importance of sensation a few steps further. A sign, whether verbal or non-verbal, can only be acted upon if perceived or sensed. Without sensation, perception and therefore judgement cannot occur. And animals project emotions themselves, which makes them critical in helping humans project their own pathos, which ultimately helps humans and animals mutually affect the other’s mental, and ultimately physical, states. In this sense, for Hawhee, sensation is as important to the development of political discourse as logos.

Zoostylistics, “a theory of style that uses animal images—sonic, visual, tactile—to vivify words” (39), becomes Hawhee’s focus in chapter two. Here she examines how words convey rhetoric’s energeia: words don’t only function as cognitive agents, but also as material entities that activate our sensations. Hawhee explores rhetoric’s “sensuous properties” (39) and concludes that animals work better at arousing sensations than rationality. Therefore, animals inspire “extraordinary style,” which “is achieved by taking rhetoric beyond the limits of persuasion” (46). More specifically, Hawhee examines the sounds that words evoke, with a unique take on onomatopoeia, which she calls “the most beastly of tropes” (52). Onomatopoeia inspires a complex system of sensations that involve hearing, processing sounds themselves, using language’s ability to mimic, and deploying a rhetor’s voice. Words drawing upon zoostylistics possess a range of invaluable qualities: they evoke weight, bulk, scale, magnitude, mass, or what the Greeks called “onkos”; they project charm through their eccentric ability to expose similarities to humans; they reveal countenance through the variety of facial expressions or facial moods they offer, which is akin to “a metaphor palette” (63); and their unique body sizes and shapes communicate efficiency and compactness in expression. She argues that zoostylistics is a dynamic form of rhetoric because one image, for example a dog lapping water from a bowl, can excite visual images (its long tongue), gestural images (its head movement), and sonic images (the sound of water being lapped) in one short, concise phrase. Hawhee ultimately concludes that words themselves are animals that bite, sting, prick, slither, crawl, and rub our souls, imaginations, and minds.

The progymnasmata, the academic exercises students in ancient Greece completed to learn and practice rhetoric, are rife with references to an impressive range of animals including reptiles, mammals, insects, and birds. In short, Hawhee states, “animals are used” and critical in rhetorical education, “but they also in many cases show what then gets told” (5, emphasis in the original). In chapter three, Hawhee demonstrates how animals depicted in fables are “dynamic teaching assistants” (9) because of the kinship they share with children, who also lack language; speaking animals are more relatable to children. She challenges traditional receptions of fables in rhetorical theory as “overly simple, a trifle” (71) and in animal studies as too anthropocentric. Conversely, Hawhee finds excellent value in fables, particularly as pedagogical tools. They are flexible, customizable, and adaptable because they are not linked to a specific time or place. They are short and efficient, and provide “insight” (her emphasis) because they feature likeness and similarity between animal and human interactions. Fables also highlight sensation and translate it into future action, bringing certainty and assurance to an uncertain world. In this sense, fables are critical to rhetorical education because instigating and manifesting the future’s materiality is the work of deliberative rhetoric. A fable usually “leans truthward” (86), which is why it’s an ideal genre used in political rhetoric (think of American orators such as Abraham Lincoln and his frequent allusions to fables to teach political maxims). They also are reminiscent of dreams in that they illustrate surreal, oppositional predicaments like the tortoise and hare that are instructional and require minimal narrative. Finally, Hawhee argues that “fable exploits both the pleasure of spectatorship and the pain of imagining an undesirable future” (74); fables portray animal pain and suffering in memorable ways that can help children, as an integral part of their education, envision a better future.

In the final three chapters, Hawhee uses her keen eye to analyze a range of other classical and medieval texts to explore the “zoocentric side of instruction in rhetoric” (113). In chapter four, her focus turns to ekphrasis and encomium, which both share an emphasis on the magnification of objects and perceiving them in a new light to inspire amazement, wonder, and marvel. For Hawhee, with ekphrasis, or an intense verbal description usually of a work of art, “words do the seeing from a distance” (94), and with encomium, or the intense praising and commending of something, readers and listeners are forced to see a new reality that challenges existing beliefs. Hawhee examines Lucian’s tribute The Fly and Psellos’ tribute to the flea and other insects to make her points. Words are like microscopes that help magnify minute or invisible entities to “generate marvel” (106), and this desire to carefully magnify mundane objects through these rhetorical tropes contributed to the scientific revolutions that highlighted the Enlightenment.

In chapter five, Hawhee turns her attention toward an unusual but nevertheless provocative topic: the depiction of rams’ testicles in medieval art. Here, she demonstrates how portrayals of animals leaned on “the extraordinary” to excite memory. Disturbing images excel at inciting these feelings, as do images of ugliness and grotesqueness (think of the perverse popularity of horror movies). For Hawhee, the more an image projects a likeness to its original object, the more potential it has of instigating an emotional response to that likeness/object, and this complementary relationship is critical. One without the other produces empty rhetoric, and animals are key agents in fueling that complementarity.

Finally, in chapter six, Hawhee explores the notion of accumulatio and copia, which emphasize the idea of accumulation and “a weighty materiality, a piling up of things” (135). The “principle of plentitude” that describes the early modern period of Western history, a byproduct of growing trade and increasing imperialism, scientific discovery, the printing press, and other factors, led to the popularity of “curiosity cabinets, museums, grottos,” and zoos and other manifestations of excess. In this light, accumulatio was a strategy for “preserving and nurturing life” (137) and cultivating wealth, knowledge, and socialization. These trends trickled into language and rhetoric by generating complex lists that helped reveal variety, diversity, and a sense of overwhelming the senses. This is another example of how Hawhee effectively not only makes important points about animals’ contributions to rhetoric, but larger cultural, societal, and political developments in history. With animals particularly, cross-species relations were also highlighted to demonstrate how lists themselves “produced” a plethora of sensations, almost an invention strategy itself. In this context, I am reminded of Ian Bogost’s thoughtful study of lists in Alien Phenomenology (38-41), but as Bogost points out, inanimate things are as capable of lending agency through written lists as animals, so Hawhee’s point about animals here is somewhat reduced. Nevertheless, this copia, then, when translated into lists, functioned as a collective memory to study, observe, and imitate nature, culture, and society.

In these final three chapters, Hawhee’s arguments do lose some steam. For example, while trying to celebrate animals’ roles in classical rhetorical instruction, she uses traditional human-based conceptions of rhetoric—ekphrasis, copia, encomimum—to do so, thus ignoring the possibilities of rhetorical practices that are specifically unique to animals. I am reminded here about arguments in visual rhetoric, which suggest that the study of images, when framed as visual “rhetoric,” rely too much on rhetoric’s written and oral traditions. Hawhee perpetuates the same problem. In short, under the guise of animal rhetoric, she is still fundamentally discussing human rhetoric. In this sense, Hawhee also falls into the ubiquitous tautological bind so common in discussions about animal rhetoric: while trying to amplify animals’ important role in human rhetoric to ultimately elevate animals’ longstanding inferiority complex to humans, she fails to acknowledge that humans are themselves fundamentally animals. Consequently, the animal-human distinction is a false one, which demands a more nuanced classification of animals’ types of rhetorical abilities.

But perhaps my biggest criticism of Hawhee’s work is that it lacks scientific information about animal communication. This is important because she consistently lumps animals together into one monolithic category instead of taxonomically parsing the potentially radical differences in how large groups of animals—mammals, insects, birds, reptiles, fish, etc.—influence and practice rhetoric. My point here is less a criticism than a suggestion for future research: wouldn’t it be interesting to see the zoostylistic differences among how snakes, hawks, and whales, as just a few examples, have influenced humans’ rhetorical behaviors? Treating animals as one massive category erases their important differences, which could serve as a potential treasure chest of rhetorical knowledge. Of course, as someone who studies the influence that fish have on human literacy—what I call ichthyoliteracy—I was personally disappointed at the lack of references to fish in the book.

Hawhee concludes with a thoughtful examination of an image of a seventeenth century depiction of Rhetorica, one of the 16 liberal arts, which is currently archived in the Folger Shakespeare Library. As she describes the image, of particular interest is the way three chains connect Rhetorica’s mouth to the heads of a three-headed animal, which after close scrutiny she best describes as a wolf, lion, and dog. In essence, this image, a key visual in the rhetorical instruction of its time, visually summarizes her argument beautifully. The art of human rhetoric is profoundly connected to animals: rhetoric and animals are not separate, but co-constitute each other. As Hawhee writes, “the art of rhetoric is not just an open-and-shut case of nonhuman animals serving human ones in a field” (170); despite the lack of studies involving animals in rhetorical history and theory, Hawhee concludes that the animals have long been irreplaceable in rhetoric’s long history. Rhetoric in Tooth and Claw, although limited in its scope and missing some key theoretical moves, should be a key early installment in rhetoric’s long overdue foray into animal studies and related environmental humanities fields.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Kennedy, George. A Hoot in the Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric. Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 25, no. 1, 1992, pp. 1-21.

Return to Composition Forum 38 table of contents.