ASHR Interview: Joanna Kenty on Cicero’s Oratory and Making Connections between Rhetoric and Classics

In this interview, I speak to Dr. Joanna Kenty about making connections between rhetorical studies and classics. Dr. Kenty is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Roman political oratory.

Loveridge: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Joanna! It was a pleasure to meet you at the ASHR conference in Austin. Can you tell me about how you became interested in the history of rhetoric? What initially drew you to the field, and how would you describe your main research areas?

Kenty: I came to the study of rhetoric via Roman history — I majored in Classics in college, because of amazing seminars on Roman poetry and Greek mythology, and got really interested in the history of the fall of the Roman republic.  That’s what I wanted to write my dissertation on in grad school, and I focused on the idea that the fall of the Roman republic was also the end of free speech and political oratory at Rome. My dissertation was mostly about Cicero’s speeches, and how later orators followed his example in various ways. I used to say that I studied oratory, but not rhetoric – the practice, but not the theory, of persuasion.  But now I have a postdoc in Latin rhetoric, so I guess I’m a rhetorician now! 

At the same time, outside my academic life, I think I was really fascinated by Barack Obama as an orator.  He gave his big DNC speech when I was about to start my first year of college, and he was such a talented speaker in terms of inspiring people with big ideas. Bill Clinton’s DNC speech in 2008 was really fascinating to me too, but he’s so conversational and disarming. Obama and Clinton have really different styles, yet they were both extremely compelling in their own ways. The more I studied Cicero’s speeches, the more I appreciated the similarity in rhetorical techniques then and now, and the importance of the individual character and style of an orator. In the last election cycle, I wrote an article about Hillary Clinton’s style and persona, because I find that so interesting.

Loveridge: The connections you are making in your scholarship between classics and politics are interesting, and also part of a recent trend in classics to look at the reception of ancient ideas. Based on your work, why do you think that the history of rhetoric an important area of study for rhetorical theory, communication, rhetoric and composition, etc. more broadly? Why does the history of rhetoric matter today?

Kenty: There’s so much work and thought that goes into a really good speech, but a really good speech is built to hide all that work, so that it seems organic and sincere and lively. A speech is like a clock – most people just glance at it to tell time, but there’s a whole world of cogs and mechanisms in there to make the thing work. The more you know about rhetorical theory and techniques, the more you’re able to notice about how a speech works. You’re more able to notice what the speech is trying to make you feel or think. I think that’s always been an important skill set for voters and politicians in every society. If you learn anything from the history of rhetoric, it’s that there is no such thing as a politician who just says what they think – in fact, I’m not sure most people do that even in daily life.  We shape our words to have the right effect, the right meaning for whoever we’re talking to. Yes, it’s possible to use rhetoric to manipulate people and deceive them, but it’s like any other tool that can be used constructively or destructively.

Loveridge: What are your current research projects? Do they relate to or build from your previous work?

I’m almost done with a book manuscript!  Cicero’s Political Personae — I presented a little piece of it at ASHR in February, on the rhetoric of partisanship used by Cicero in his role as a leader of a political faction.  The book is sort of half rhetorical analysis of ethos, half Roman history: how did Cicero adapt different personae to make his voice heard politically in the last part of his career, when the republican government was in crisis?  The personae I look at include the attacker, the grateful friend, the martyr, the senator, and the great man’s spokesman.  It’s all based on close readings of the orations themselves, rather than rhetorical theory – I think it’s really interesting to think about the aspects of political speechwriting that aren’t part of the handbooks, and that can’t be explained or systematized by rhetorical theory. 

I’m also working on a couple of articles for my postdoc which have to do with irony, figured speech, and double meanings in Cicero’s works – a speech, In Defense of Balbus, and a letter he wrote to a historian named Lucceius. My postdoc is part of a big Netherlands project on “Anchoring Innovation,” the techniques of familiarizing new inventions or practices. At the moment, I’m working through the idea of speeches which have double meanings because their audience is divided along political lines, so that they hear the same speech totally differently, whether the orator intends them to or not. Obviously a phenomenon we can observe in our own media and political rhetoric at the moment – I’m planning to write some kind of essay or article for a non-academic audience about it.

Loveridge: What advice would you give to a graduate student beginning work in the history of rhetoric?

Take Latin or Greek!  Or Roman or Greek history, at least.  Or collaborate with classicists.  Unless you’re already in a classics program, in which case I think you should get to know some Communication and Rhetoric specialists (and medievalists!) at your institution.  It’s a little silly that our disciplines are so separate.

Also, give some serious thought to a career outside academia, and make sure you’re pursuing a career that you really want, whatever it is, independently of outside pressure.  The job market is appalling. And if you want to do work relating historical subjects like rhetoric to our modern life, do it!  I find it rewarding and restorative.

Loveridge: What do you like best about ASHR? Why should someone become involved with the organization?

Kenty: The conference in Austin last February was my first experience with ASHR, and I really enjoyed it. What a great group of people, with incredibly diverse research topics.  Rhetoric is everywhere!  I came away with a long list of books and articles to read, to inform my work – some of them were cited multiple times during the conference, and I’d never heard of them, because I’m coming from a different discipline and a different community.

Loveridge: Finally, my favorite question: who is one of your favorite figures from the history of rhetoric?

Kenty: I’m going to give the obvious answer of Cicero, and I’ll tell you why: because so many people hate him!  Some of that comes from forced marches through his very long sentences in Latin, but some of it is the perception of him as vain and arrogant. I do not find his self-promotion grating, personally – I think it’s just part of being a politician.  I also think his jokes are funny.  This may all tell you more about me than about him.

Seriously, I think his speeches are just endlessly interesting to interrogate and unpack, with so much operating under the surface. Political rhetoric is so subtle, it’s so dependent on cultural and historical context – for example, if you look only at the names of political parties, they tend to be meaningless abstract words, but to people with specific knowledge and context, they have enormous meaning and emotional weight. The more I learn about Cicero’s life from his letters and other histories, the more I appreciate what’s going on just under the surface of his speeches, and the more I see how he affected people. The order of arguments, the attitudes and emotional aspects and the way they change throughout a speech, the word choices, and the storytelling arcs are all conscious or unconscious choices that could have been made differently.  So he’s certainly my favorite subject of study.

About the Interviewer: Jordan Loveridge is Assistant Professor of Communication and English at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He earned his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Arizona State University, focusing specifically on medieval rhetoric. His work appears in venues such as Philosophy and RhetoricCommunity Literacy Journal, and Advances in the History of Rhetoric.