Unframing Models of Public Distribution: from Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies

Situation bleeds into the concatenation of public interaction. Public interactions bleed into wider social processes. The elements of rhetorical situation simply bleed. 9

Although I’m tempted to summarize this article through an overarching zombie metaphor (influenced by Edbauer Rice’s emphasis of bleeding, contagion, and viral spreading), I’ll try to resist as much as possible.

So, she begins with a focus on Michael Warner and his critique of public communication: “No single text can create a public. Nor can a single voice, a single genre, or even a single medium. All are insufficient…, since a public is understood to be an ongoing space of encounter for discourse” (62 qtd. in Edbauer 5, emphasis added). This critique is important for Edbauer Rice because it’s similar to the critique she wants to make about rhetorical situations.

Traditional configurations of the rhetorical triangle (sender-receiver-text or ethospathoslogos) is too limiting. It attempts to create discrete, concerete categories when in reality those categories are (sometimes arbitrarily) constructed and limiting for considering the dynamic relationship between all the different and shifting elements impacting a rhetorical situation. Edbauer Rice’s project isn’t to critique these older models of the rhetorical situation, though, as much as it is to build on them.

She offers some background here, which is nice review (of conversations I’ve outlined here before). Bitzer, of course, was the leader in troubling  over-simplified models of communication by placing rhetoric within a situational context. Vatz critiqued Bitzer for locating exigencies beyond the situation as the thing that rhetors respond to (as opposed to the thing that rhetors create for their audiences). Smith and Lybarger also critiqued Bitzer, arguing that “rhetorical situation involves a plurality of exigences and complex relationships between the audience and a rhetorician’s interest” (6)—an argument for a more interactive notion of exigence itself and how it both affects and is affected by multiple agents and constraints. And then there’s Biesecker’s critique that rhetoric is too often conceptualized “within a scene of already-formed, already-discrete individuals” (7)—a conceptualization that problematically positions rhetoric as static.

Edbauer Rice (ER) concludes this background re-cap with Louise Wetherbee Phelps. ER writes, “Rather than seeing rhetoric as the totality of its discrete elements, Phelps’ critique seeks to recontextualize those elements in a wider sphere of active, historical, and lived processes” (8), which seems to be where this argument begins. ER critiques the idea of rhetoric as “elemental conglomerations” (7) and moves more toward Phelps’s conceptualization of the rhetorical situation as an “ongoing social flux” (9).

Specifically, her aim is to shift from rhetorical situation to rhetorical ecology:

Rather than primarily speaking of rhetoric through the terministic lens of conglomerated elements, I look towards a framework of affective ecologies that recontextualizes rhetorics in their temporal, historical, and lived fluxes. In what follows, I want to propose a revised strategy for theorizing public rhetorics (and rhetoric’s publicness) as a circulating ecology of effects, enactments, and events by shifting the lines of focus from rhetorical situation to rhetorical ecologies. 9

Within this project is an attempt to frame rhetoric as a “public(s) creation” (9) that both affects and is affected by different and shifting situational elements.

Interestingly, she takes a chapter from critical geography here (Shaviro, Reynolds), talking through critical notions of place in order to argue that place is also not as static as we believe. The rhetorical situation configures rhetoric as a place in space/time that can be divided into discrete parts and analyzed piece by static piece, but when we decouple place from situs (ie, fixed location), we can gain a richer sense of both place and rhetoric.

And then we take the zombie turn.

Rhetorical ecologies are situated within what ER calls a “viral economy”:

A given rhetoric is not contained by the elements that comprise its rhetorical situation (exigence, rhetor, audience, constraints). Rather, a rhetoric emerges already infected by the viral intensities that are circulating in the social field. Moreover, this same rhetoric will go on to evolve in aparallel ways: between two “species” that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. What is shared between them is not the situation, but certain contagions and energy. 13

So zombie jokes aside, rhetorical ecologies give us room to think about the way rhetoric circulates, evolves and adapts, and even the counter-rhetorics that emerge within and beyond particular situations. That is, rhetorical ecologies offer a way to think about the “spread” of rhetoric (20).

The piece ends with the quintessential turn to the classroom, wherein ER applies rhetorical ecologies on the level of production. She focuses on a rhetorically-grounded pedagogy as one that does more than just position research as a process that leads to production and circulation and instead focuses on a more “generative research method that takes the circulation of effects as an aim” (22). One way to do this, she argues, is to look at the discourse that circulate through blogs—the way blogs are linked together and constantly responding to situations and each other. It’s an argument for thinking/doing—asking students to do more than decode and analyze texts but to actually think about how those texts exist and shift in social contexts.

I think the takeaway for me here is the focus on process and circulation and particularly dynamism. There’s limitation in breaking up complex situations into discrete parts, in creating taxonomies and categories that we attempt to treat as static. I think this is also useful as a method for thinking through my previous discussion of how to productively analyze the rhetoric around the Newtown shooting—its exigence, the different arguments and counter-arguments folks made about mental illness and autism, and how that situation fits within larger discourses of mental health and historical accounts of violence.



Edbauer, Jenny. “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: from Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 35.4 (2005): 5-24. Print.


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