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11: Kairos

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    Kairos refers to a qualitative sense of time, an intangible sense of opportunity. In ancient Greek, kairos simply means “time,” but it doesn’t mean the same thing we understand by time. For ancient Greeks, there were two different understandings of time. The first, chronos, is similar to what we mean by time: quantitative, linear time (it’s where we get the word “chronological”). The second word for “time” in ancient Greek is kairos. A moment is kairotic when something happens that couldn’t happen at any other time or place. As writers, we might recognize a kairotic moment and seize the opportunity to put our ideas out there, or we might try to create a kairotic moment by generating a sense of urgency and significance in our audience about an issue or topic. 

     

    History of Kairos 

    Kairos was a minor god for the Greeks, the god of opportunity, and the youngest son of Zeus. He is often depicted as having wings on his feet to represent fleeting time, but his most distinguishing physical characteristic is a long piece of hair on his forehead that represents the need to grab opportunity as he is racing toward you. If you let him get by, you’ve lost your chance, because typically he’s depicted with his head shaved. Kairos as a theoretical concept was central to classical Greek rhetoric, philosophy, and education. In ancient Greece, it carried a variety of meanings, including among others, “symmetry,” “propriety,” “decorum,” and “wise moderation” (Sipiora 1). 

    For Plato and Aristotle, kairos was paramount. Both philosophers gave their students many rules and principles about writing and performing different kinds of texts. However, rhetoricians knew that, especially when you were speaking in front of a live audience as were most ancient Greeks, no matter how carefully you followed all the rules, you also had to pay close attention to the particular circumstances of that moment: What exactly you were trying to accomplish, what people were talking about that day, the general mood of the audience, and anything else that might affect listeners’ attitudes toward the speaker’s topic and argument. Considering all those other forces that would affect speech is considering kairos.  

    Jewish and Christian communities borrowed the Greek concept of kairos to talk about the ways that God intervened at opportune moments (kairos) in human history (chronos) (Smith 54). The English phrase “a time to” in the oft-quoted passage in Ecclesiastes—“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die”—is to some a translation of kairos. Catholics in particular use the term to refer to a specific type of retreat where participants are on “God’s time.” This usage is similar to the notions of “presence” or being “in the moment” that you might be familiar with from Buddhist and other traditions. 

     

    Kairos Today 

    Athletes already understand what kairos means, even if they don’t use the word. You might think of kairos as timing your move just right to achieve the results you want—throwing the pass at just the right time, stealing a base, making the final sprint, putting up a block just when the opponent shoots. A quarterback doesn’t just count seconds when he gets ready to pass (that’s time as chronos); he also thinks about what he knows about this particular defense’s tactics and whether his receiver is where he needs to be, he thinks about how the weather affects play in this stadium, and he thinks about how he feels that day and how the game has gone so far. When all these circumstances line up, the quarterback seizes the opportunity to score. That’s kairos.  

    Writing in the 21st century requires that we all think more carefully about kairos. Consider, for example, the writing we do via social media. Tweets and status updates are typically about events happening in the moment, and a writer with a sense of kairos is more likely to be “liked” or be re-tweeted, because that person has hit on something that responds successfully to what others are thinking and doing at the time. We might think of Google trends or a TikTok “For You” page as an up-to-the-minute snapshot of topics that are particularly kairotic. Even news sites determine the placement of their articles by the number of clicks: Editors move the articles with the most clicks to the top of the page because advertisers and media companies make money in the presence of kairos.  

    In fact, many of the best current examples of kairos come from marketing. A company like Apple, for example, times—in the sense of kairos, not chronos—the release of their newest models or products to maximize profit, and they do a lot of work to create a kairotic moment by building up anticipation among customers before the release. 

    Carolyn Miller explains kairos this way: “The challenge is to invent, within a set of unfolding and unprecedented circumstances, an action (rhetorical or otherwise) that will be understood as uniquely meaningful within those circumstances” (xiii). The authors and editors of Teen Vogue faced this challenge around the time of Donald Trump’s election: many people were surprised to notice that Teen Vogue started publishing overtly political and feminist articles. The surprise stems from the seeming disconnect between their ethos as a frothy girls’ magazine and these serious journalistic efforts. However, through the lens of kairos, it makes perfect sense. One commentator said, “The genius of the current iteration of Teen Vogue is that it’s caught on to its current readers’ enthusiasm for topical issues in a timely enough fashion to actually engage them” (qtd. in Gilbert). “Timely” here is referring to the sense of time we mean when we talk about kairos. 

    One of Teen Vogue’s editors confirms the analysis that the publication was paying attention to kairos. He says, “Obviously, the election has provided unique circumstances and a real need for someone to dissect the news for young people. Since we are, in particular, a brand that speaks directly to millions of young women, we have a responsibility to do right by them and view the news through that very specific lens.” (qtd. in Gilbert).We can see Miller’s definition of kairos here: the publication recognized “unfolding and unprecedented circumstances” in the election of a misogynistic president, and by writing to their audience of young women, they took a rhetorical action that has been “understood as uniquely meaningful within those circumstances.” 

    Another example might be the surge in organizing that was seen in the summer of 2023, which some called the Summer of Labor. While union membership has declined since rates were first recorded in the 1980s, it seems that everyone was talking about labor-related issues. The Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild, along with the United Auto Workers, are some of the largest unions on strike as of this writing. While these groups are largely seen as privileged, their concerns such as just-in-time scheduling and being replaced by AI have resonated with many people. These strikes have created an opening for new unions to form in coffee shops, Amazon warehouses, or other lower-wage jobs where the workers don’t have the visibility of favorite TV stars. These writers and actors use the advantage of circulation to create kairos for their fellow workers. 

     

    Broadening the Concept  

    The notion of kairos has become even more slippery with the explosion of social media platforms and the speed at which we can share information. Often, the germ of a news story will be circulating on TikTok long before facts have been verified by a traditional journalistic source. In some ways, this has been a positive. The democratization of information allows marginalized voices a platform for viewpoints that have traditionally been undervalued. However, the amplification that these platforms provide is not always positive, and it often proves to be misleading—or out-and-out false.   

    Indeed, sometimes (if not often) social media gets it wrong. In 2014, The Daily Dot reported that Anonymous doxed a police officer accused of shooting Black teenager Michael Brown (Price). Or at least that’s what the intention was. When it was pointed out that they had doxed the wrong person, the damage had already been done. The person who was doxed was not even a police officer and wasn’t involved in the shooting at all, but his information continued to circulate. You likely have other examples of a “news story” that turned out to be false or a rumor. Once a pile-on starts, it’s difficult to stop the wave of vitriol. 

    Similarly, repressive groups can also be mobilized through these platforms just as easily as people working for social justice. Where once White supremacist groups had to “out” themselves to gather and cause chaos, they are now about to create a moment by connecting social media, and then carry this kairotic opportunity into the offline world. 

     

    Kairos and Other Concepts 

    Kairos is about timing our communication—whether it’s in words or some other media—so that we can accomplish what we want to accomplish. We need the word kairos, because we can’t time its influence by looking at a clock. Rather, we must time it by thinking about all the other circumstances that will affect what happens to our ideas once we put them out there. As the examples above indicate, we not only have to be ready, but we also must be aware of how we intend our ideas to circulate, how our ideas might get remixed (or distorted) and the affordances and constraints of various media and technology. 

    There isn’t a set of “10 easy steps” to circulate our ideas in whatever field we’re trying to reach. It should be obvious why this is the case: What people are talking about, their mood, even their physical location, all these are constantly changing. In some respects, this makes kairos challenging to learn. But we need to think about kairos in terms of what is possible right now. What can we do right now that will take advantage of everything we know about our particular field? Part of the answer will lie in the genres we choose to use, the way we construct our ethos, how we arrange our text. Part of the answer will lie in circulation methods—is X, Instagram, TikTok, or just standing on the street corner the best way to circulate our ideas? And part of the answer will lie in pure chance. Still, it’s important to remember that kairos isn’t the same as chance; kairos is recognizing when it’s best to take a chance and making your own luck by taking that opportunity. 

     

    Looking Ahead 

    Kairos, as we know, is the combination of finding the “right” moment to speak and the “right” way to speak. However, Eric Charles White expands this definition, adding that “the word has roots in both weavings (suggesting the creation of an opening) and archery (denoting the seizing of, and striking forcefully through an opening).” When George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, his dying words “I Can’t Breathe” were seen on t-shirts, social media account and protest signs across the country. Although groups like Black Lives Matter existed prior to Floyd’s death, the brutality of this death and the kairotic moment created by the pandemic lockdown turned the eyes of more Americans to a problem that these groups had been trying to solve for years. Since then, ideas like restorative justice and defunding the police no longer sound as “out-there” as they might have to citizens just five years ago. 

    In classes that invite students to use research and secondary sources, students often use the concept of kairos when they consider what conversation they will study. If students decided to study the conversation around the topic of immigration reform, for example, they would find many timely sources to offer varying perspectives on the conversation. They would also find a variety of opportunities and venues to make a meaningful contribution to that conversation. Often, however, students use their own experiences and engagement with culture to select a conversation that has not captured the attention of the larger culture so that they can create opportunities for kairos. If a student decided to study women in the DIY music scene, they might search for sources for initiating a conversation around how to promote equality and fairness and create the best music. The student might then create a space for kairos where many people view and comment on their writing by considering the affordances of different modes of online circulation. However we employ the concept of kairos in future writing, it will ensure that our work meaningfully responds to the conversations we value. 

     

    Kairos in AI-Assisted Writing 

    Many writers are afraid of AI-assisted writing because they believe it can do their job faster than they can and thus could theoretically seize a kairotic moment more quickly. Yet as we noted above, being first doesn’t guarantee accuracy or accountability. AI is still in its infancy, and as it scrapes the web for answers, it doesn’t know the difference between a carefully researched argument and a screed written by someone's racist uncle. It will pick the answer it sees most often. A writer or researcher will amend what they think if new facts are revealed, but some AI has not been “trained” on anything after 2021, so it may not have the up-to-date facts on trending topics. It also may not have gathered information from older or more obscure texts that get fewer clicks. Nuance is not AI’s specialty—nor is accountability. As you have read elsewhere in this text, AI often makes up what it presents as facts. 

    Again, this technology is in its infancy, and we can’t know what it is capable of. Currently there are some rules around citation, but those rules are changing every day. At the time of publishing, the driver of kairos is still the human inputting the prompt into the AI; the human publishers are still responsible for making sure that the speech they produce is accurate and doesn’t cause harm. 

     

    Kairos in 3D Printing 

    While we’ve focused primarily on writing and other modes of communication, kairos can apply to the production of physical objects as well. Earlier, we mentioned the several strikes that began or continued through 2023’s Summer of Labor. A complaint of many workers is the idea of on-demand or just-in-time scheduling. That is, instead of having a set weekly schedule around which they can plan other jobs or things like doctors’ appointments and classes, many workers find that businesses adjust schedules based on consumer demand, and therefore they often expect workers to be able to make last-minute changes to their respective schedules.   

    When it comes to the production of objects, the market has had to adapt to a similar variable schedule. During the pandemic, we saw some of the effects of this: stores that ordered based on demand frequently ran out of staple items or were unable to cope with surges in customer interest in items like children’s bikes, puzzles, or baking supplies. Customers used to Amazon and DoorDash have also increased the need for production flexibility as they expect delivery in increasingly time-limited windows. 3D-printing is one of the many technologies that can help meet this demand for a flexible, fast production schedule. 

     

    Writing with Kairos  

    Think again about the quarterback getting ready to pass: a good quarterback knows how to seize the opportunity to score when all the circumstances are just right, and a better quarterback can create some of those circumstances by dodging a tackle or making a last-minute play change. Even the best quarterback cannot control all the circumstances that matter: The speed of opponents, the weather, how well the receivers slept the night before, the noise of the crowd, and so on. The same is true of writers: much of what matters when we write in the 21st century is beyond our control. The concept of “spreadability,” which Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, discuss in the introduction to their book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, is about how much an audience’s decisions about whether to share content matters. Authors can try to create content that is spreadable and put that content in places where others will find it, but the audience’s decisions—like much of kairos—is ultimately beyond their control. Nevertheless, when we write, we can be attuned to the relevant circumstances by asking a series of questions:  

    • What are the historical circumstances, both locally and more broadly, that have given rise to this issue? How does my topic respond to these circumstances?  

    • What are other people saying about my topic right now? Why do people care about this right now?  

    • Where are people talking about this topic (on X [formerly Twitter], in mainstream media, in informal conversations, in academic journals)?  

    • When people talk about this issue, what else are they talking about? What are the most current examples or points of debate? And what aren’t they saying?  

    • What genres and media are best suited to the circulation methods that will most likely generate the attention I want? 

     

    Kairos Activity 

    Option 1: Gather a few weird memes. Use sites like “Know Your Meme” to help discuss “Why This? Why Now?” 

    Option 2: Use the For You page of TikTok accounts or Google Trends to determine the “it” story of the day. (For those who may not view TikTok or Google Trends, pair up with students who do.) Discuss how to “stitch” new content to the existing trending content and remix it into something new. What’s the best way to circulate that content? If there’s time, create and circulate the actual content. What strategies have been most effective here, and why? 









     

    Works Cited 

    Gilbert, Sophie. “Teen Vogue’s Political Coverage Isn’t Surprising.” The Atlantic, December 2016. 

    Jenkins, Henry, et al. “Introduction: Why Media Spreads.” Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, New York UP, 2014. 

    Miller, Carolyn R., and Dawn Shepherd. “Blogging as a Social Action: A Genre Analysis of the Weblog.” Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs, May 2014. 

    Price, Rob. A Brief History of Anonymous Doxing the Wrong Person: Right or Wrong, There’s No Stopping the Doxing. 30 May 2021, Anonymous Doxing the Wrong Person [dailydot.com]. Accessed 14 Dec. 2023. 

    Sipiora, Phillip, and James S. Baumlin. “Introduction: The Ancient Concept of Kairos.” Rhetoric and  Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. SUNY Press, 2002. 

    Smith, John E. “Time and Qualitative Time.” Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. Phillip Sipiora and James S. Baumlin. SUNY Press, 2002, pp. 46–57. 

    U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Union Membership Rate Fell by 0.2 Percentage Point to 10.1 Percent in 2022.” TED: The Economics Daily, 24 Jan. 2023, Union Membership Rate [bls.gov]. Accessed 14 Dec. 2023. 

    White, Eric Charles. Kaironomia: On the Will-to-Invent. Cornell UP, 1987.


    11: Kairos is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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