Our readings this week in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory center on the rhetorical situation and, coincidentally, all appear on our exam list, so this will be a bit more summary-heavy than usual.
Bitzer started these debates with his article “The Rhetorical Situation.” Arguing that we hadn’t properly theorized the rhetorical situation, Bitzer’s purpose is to lay some theoretical groundwork for rhetoric-as-essentially-related-to-situation. To do this, he defines it:
Rhetorical situation may be defined as a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence. (Bitzer 220)
There are three important constituents here that Bitzer breaks down further. First is exigence. He writes, “Any exigence is an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be. … An exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse” (221). Second is audience and the idea that rhetorical discourse only initiates change when it positively influences an audience (221). And connected to audience, then, are the constraints that “constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence,” such as beliefs or facts (222).
Bitzer argues that rhetorical discourse is produced in response to exigence, that a situation requires a “fitting” response, and that the situation ultimately controls the response. Rhetoric occurs when a speaker responds to exigence by addressing an audience that is capable of acting upon that urgency. Because the response is prescribed by the situation, this leaves very little—if any—agency for the rhetor.
Although many challenged Bitzer, Vatz seems to have the classic 1-2 punch response. Essentially, Vatz flips Bitzer’s position to argue that rhetoric creates exigence. That is, “exigences are not the product of objective events, but rather are a matter of perception an interpretation” (Vatz 214). This places more agency within the (subjective) rhetor than the (objective) situation.
Situations don’t exist externally to the rhetorical, or symbolic, interpretation of the rhetor who chooses to characterize it, and meaning is not intrinsic to situations or people (226). Instead, there are so many contexts that the rhetor must choose particular facts or events to communicate to the audience. Here, Vatz emphasizes salience. It is not until the rhetor selects particular facts or events—by means of a creative interpretive process—that a situation can be imbued with salience and meaning (228).
Vatz very clearly separates himself from Bitzer by illustrating how it is the rhetor, not the situation, that makes choices and constructs rhetorical meaning:
I would not say “rhetoric is situational,” but situations are rhetorical; not “exigence strongly invites utterance,” but utterance strongly invites exigence; not “the situation controls the rhetorical response,” but the rhetoric controls the situational response; not “rhetorical discourse … does obtain its character-as-rhetorical from the situation which generates it,” but situations obtain their character from the rhetoric which surrounds them or creates them. (229)
The takeaway from Vatz, then, is this: “meaning is not discovered in situations, but created by rhetors” (228).
So, to recap: Bitzer argues that the situation (& exigence) prompts and produces rhetorical discourse. Vatz challenges this idea by flipping it, arguing instead that rhetorical discourse creates exigence. Enter Biesecker, who argues that we need to reconsider both the situation & speaker. By granting the rhetor seemingly autonomous agency, Vatz flattens the roles of rhetor, situation, and audience. Biesecker seeks to engage in more complicated understandings by introducing “deconstruction” as a way to reimagine the rhetorical transaction and the identities of both audience and rhetor (214).
Biesecker suggests a reexamination of text and audience through Derrida’s notion of différance, offering deconstruction as a way “to read symbolic action in general and rhetorical discourse in particular as radical possibility” (233). This reexamination intends to move beyond the impasse created by the chicken-or-egg originary question posed by Bitzer & Vatz: Which came first, the situation or the speaker?
This next part, though, is a bit fuzzy. Biesecker takes up Derrida’s notion of différance in order to show how deconstruction can be used for useful analyses of rhetorical events, but her articulation of Derrida and différance is opaque.
So first, some Derridean background (from my trusty Literary Theory: An Anthology). Derrida argues that the signified is never present in itself; that is, “every concept is necessarily and essentially inscribed in a chain or a system within which it refers to another and to other concepts by the systematic play of differences” (285). Because these concepts all exist in relation to each other, they also bear the traces of other things, which creates difference because now the concepts are shadowed by alterity, otherness. And because that which exists is relationally connected, we cannot assume that—once deconstructed—particular parts can be original.
Asking whether rhetoric creates exigence or whether exigence produces rhetoric is unproductive because both are relationally connected. Both exist in distinction to each other, and—because they bear traces of each other—defer meaning. Bitzer argues that meaning comes from the situation, whereas Vatz argues that meaning is created by the rhetor. For Biesecker (and Derrida), meaning is constructed by looking beyond binary constructions of speaker/situation, looking instead in the “differencing zone” (237).
Looking beyond simple constructions is also useful for rethinking the role of an audience as something other than a “sovereign, rational subject” (241). Derrida prompts us to reconsider the audience as unstable, shifting. What this means, for the rhetorical situation, is this: “If the subject is shifting and unstable (constituted in and by the play of différance), then the rhetorical event may be seen as an incident that produces and reproduces the identities of subjects and constructs and reconstructs linkages between them” (242-43). Here, the event isn’t created by audience, nor is audience created by the event. Instead, the rhetorical situation “makes possible the production of identities and social relations” (243).
That is, rhetoric is not a “simple linear process by which one individual attempts to influence others, but rather a complex interactive process whereby persons and collectivities articulate their shifting identities to each other within changing historical circumstances” (215).
So, what does any of this mean?
We’re talking about exigence this week in the class I’m teaching as students start to think about how to create exigence for their research projects. The homework for this weekend, in fact, is to re-read a shared text (Liza Long’s “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”) in order to reflect on the exigence:
- How does she create exigence?
- How does she give readers a reason for reading?
- How does the post reflect the “right” or appropriate (kairotic) moment for responding?
If we read the post from Bitzer’s perspective, it responds to a particular situation (the Newtown shooting). The post is spurred by the urgency of the representation & treatment of mental illness in the US, and Long is working against is the belief that parents are at fault in such tragic events as mass shootings. For many, this was a fitting response, indicated by the viral nature of the post. However, Long received a lot of backlash for comparing (her admittedly violent) child to mass murderers and for suggesting that the best alternative for her son is institutionalization.
Looking at the post from Vatz’s perspective, then, the urgency comes not from the Newtown shooting but is created by Long herself. She creates a sense of urgency in her discussion of incarceration, her appeals to humanize her son, and her plea to take mental health more seriously. If we look at the article just for the exigence that she as a rhetor created, we are left with this: Mentally ill children are dangerous, and we can’t do anything about it because we’ve stigmatized it and closed too many mental institutions (which are better than jail). And, obviously, I’m unhappy with this interpretation too, although it’s useful to note that Vatz’s perspective highlights these gaps and inaccuracies in Long’s rhetoric.
Biesecker would argue that by reimagining the speaker and situation as mutually constituted, or relationally connected, perhaps there are more productive ways of looking at this issue and filling in the gaps. There are a lot of situations here: gun control, the role of institutions, stigma, the conflation of violence and mental illness. And although Long is the speaker, she is speaking on behalf of her son and for the mothers of mass murders—an issue that becomes even more complicated when you consider the historical context of non-disabled people speaking for the disabled.
And, if we imagine rhetoric as an interactive process of shifting identities, and think of the way Long herself has shifted her position after receiving different responses from readers, maybe it’s not a matter of theorizing a single rhetorical situation (the discursive moment) but of a rhetorical situation that continuously shifts.
Biesecker, Barbara A. “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of Différance.” 232-46.
Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” 217-225.
Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” 226-31.