CM Punk and Kairos — the potential seeds for a deeper discussion

Again, originally offered to a class as an example, I am considering expanding on my reflections on CM Punk. This one starts from a Wikipedia definition of Kairos and goes weird places.


The first is Kairos. I could give you a book definition, but the one on Wikipedia is surprisingly well written (go figure), so here we go:

Kairos (καιρός) is an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment (the supreme moment). The ancient Greeks had two words for time,chronos and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a time in between, a moment of indeterminate time in which something special happens. What the special something is depends on who is using the word. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative nature.

If any of you are super observant, you might have noticed that my blue and black Nikes have this word stitched into the heels. Kairos is probably my favorite rhetorical concept because while in some ways it applies to everything (as everything happens at a specific time, and someone who wished to argue as such could claim that everything is “special” in its own way), when Kairos is a key element of an speaking/written/disseminated event it is often the one most critical thing to understand in order to understand the event itself.

Another concept I want you to start to think about is that of “genre.” We will work much more with genre as class moves forward, but for now, I want to give you the most basic definition because it will be the most useful to you early on (we’ll then complicate it and make it a complex, more intriguing, but also harder to hold down concept). Genres are styles or types of things. For example, video stores are broken up into genres: comedy, action, drama, romance, horror, documentary, etc. Book stores are likewise broken up. But genres also apply—in fact the word is more often used—for the types of writing or speaking event one is observing.

For example, the genre of what I’m doing right now is “blog post.” But it’s also “rhetorical analysis” (or will be) and is currently “mini-lecture.”  This becomes very important to interpreting a text because genres have expectations. Think of it like you would a game: genres have rules. And once you know the rules of the genre, you can cleverly subvert it to do intriguing rhetorical things.

I’m about to give you a strange example, but it will set you up for something we’re going to do in class, and something we’ll continue to do in class. One of the most interesting places to look at genre in rhetoric is in live television. Television, particularly popular television, lives by its genre conventions. We watch The Big Bang Theory because we want 30 minutes of a certain kind of funny, or we watch The Jersey Shore because we want to turn our brains off for 30 minutes and watch the outrageous actions of others. We turn to a show like LOST because we want to be intrigued (or bored, audience pending), and we turn to American Idol or the like because we wish to see people ply their talents in the pressure cooker of a reality competition. We know what to expect. Because we have a genre expectation, and the TV guide even goes so far as to tell us that genre.

Dr. Phill confession time: I used to work for a professional wrestler. Briefly. Through him I met a few of the guys who were just coming up in the business, and for a while I was rather close friends with a few of them. Wrestling is… a little silly, I admit. And it’s “fake” in that it’s not real combat. But there are really three elements to being a good professional wrestler: athletic talent, a good “look” (not necessarily looking “good” mind you) and being able to deliver good “promos,” which are what they call the soap opera-like elements where the performers yell at each other before fighting. Total geek confession time: I wrote a few promos for guys back in the day. It was actually a lot of fun, though it’s not something I’d put next to my more serious writing.

Okay, then… confessions out of the way. 🙂 Now I’m going to show you an instance of Kairos influencing a genre bending rhetorical act that turned a guy who was about to quasi-retire (take some time off) into one of the most popular people in his profession.

Since I doubt most of you watch professional wrestling, let me give you some context beforehand. The guys in the ring here are John Cena, the WWE Champion, and a performer named R-Truth (he’s not really important to the scenario, as he is walking away for most of what you’ll watch). The two were having a “table” match, in which to win one performer must throw the other into/through a table, breaking it. It doesn’t hurt quite as bad as it sounds because the tables are made to break, but I’m told it’s still extremely painful.

The gentleman I want you to pay attention to is the one who walks onto the ramp with the microphone and starts talking. His name is CM Punk (his real name is Phil Brooks—Phils of the world unite!). To the point of this video, he’d had a decent but not particularly shining career. Unlike someone like, say, Hulk Hogan, or even John Cena, who he comes to yell at, Punk hadn’t caught on beyond the wrestling world. No one knew who he was (I hope at least some of you do, though he didn’t exactly become an uberstar).

Here’s the Kairos: his contract with the company is actually about to expire (not just as a storyline—that part is true). He’s been “booked” in a match with John Cena for the WWE title on the last day of his contract in his home town of Chicago. While no one really knows for sure, my little gremlins in the business tell me that the plan was for Punk to lose to Cena and take an extended vacation.

Vince McMahon, the owner of WWE, gave Punk permission to walk out with a microphone and say whatever he wanted to hype his match with Cena. In that moment, here is what Punk chose to do:

There are a number of subtle things here that come into play. First of all, Punk knows the genre of the wrestling promo well. He invokes a specific ethos by wearing a Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt (if anyone knows him, Austin is arguably the most famous post-Hulk Hogan wrestler). He then goes onto mix what in wrestling is called “kayfabe” (the storyline, the scripted idea of the show) and “shooting” (referring to reality). He refers to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as “Dwayne” when he is always called “The Rock” on television, and he refers to Brock Lesnar, who at the time was out of WWE and competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Punk then goes on to follow the genre expectation of talking about how he is better than Cena while venting his actual frustrations. He even maintains his role as the “heel” (the bad guy) even though the fans, you might notice, start to cheer him. At one moment Punk gets so comfortable, he mentions a friend of his in another wrestling promotion and says “oh no, I’m breaking the fourth wall” (the fourth wall, of course, is a TV generic term for the imaginary wall formed by the TV set). The piece ends with his microphone being cut, presumably for legitimate reasons (that he is going too far) though I think it’s also possible that was the one scripted part (that Punk was told to go too far right as it was time for the show to end).

This turned out to be a brilliant move by CM Punk, as he went on to win the championship instead of losing, took a short break (with the title), came back, had a fantastic storyline with John Cena, and is now in his 10th month as the champion (editing note: he lost the title after 434 days). The reason this was successful, however, is because it could have been a typical “John Cena! I will beat you at the Slammerbowl!” sort of yelling, screaming moment, and instead, Punk uses his understanding of what is expected and the fact that he has a perfect Kairotic moment to do something that becomes highly rhetorically interesting.

So there’s two concepts to think about along with a video I bet you never expected to be part of your composition and rhetoric class. 🙂



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