What is Rhetoric/al Theory?

This disciplinary-historical review of rhetorical theory has been written as an introduction to a graduate-level survey course in rhetorical theory. Students unfamiliar with rhetoric may also find this page from the undergraduate-focused version of this course helpful.

Please note that this is the primary reading for the class and that there are also required secondary readings that are linked in the course syllabus. Please navigate to the course syllabus once you have completed the background reading below.

Discussion Presentation

Other Readings on Rhetoric and Theory

Defining Rhetoric

In this class, we will seek to understand rhetoric in one of three discrete ways:

  1. As a techne, in the sense of the techniques that enable a speaker's attentiveness, preparedness, and responsiveness to an audience. These audiences are most often the audiences of a spoken/public address, but also they may be extended to also cover the audiences of visual rhetoric and mass mediated forms of communication. The understanding of the artistic proofs (ethos, pathos, logos) and other key rhetorical terms (kairos) are often connected to this specific understanding of rhetoric because they describe the techniques of persuasion that originate with a speaker and/or the prudential judgment a speaker brings to a speaking situation so as to know when and how to provoke an appropriate response.
  2. As an epistemology, or a means of knowing the world given its a priori inaccessibility or the impossibility of rendering an purely objective understanding of the world through language or (scientific) reason alone. Historically, rhetoric was comprised one third of the medieval trivium alongside logic and grammar. A more contemporary understanding of rhetoric as a form of epistemology describes it as the organizing force that makes a text available for interpretation and negotation. From that perspective, scientists, statisticians, politicians, and liberal humanists (for instance) more-and-less avowedly use rhetoric to communicate the correctness of their methods and to guide the practice of interpretation.
  3. As an ontology, or an explanation of the "being" of speaking/communicating subjects as well as the media of communication they employ. From this perspective, rhetoric is the successor to philosophy insofar as rhetoric is more able to explain human reason, motivation, and action. This last category is sprawling and capacious. It describes efforts to understand the ways that rhetoric creates "wholes" or "totalities" such as the nation, the economy, or the subject, as well the impossibility of constructing such unities. It also encompasses theories like "the apparatus" and "the assemblage" in which a multitude of discourses, technologies, materialities, subjects, institutions, and practices coalesce to create the tentative machinery that is productive of everyday life.

A Brief History/Bibliography of American Rhetorical Studies and Public Address

This section offers a very brief review of the history of American Rhetorical Studies in the United States. It is truly a gloss rather than a deep dive, although it is intended to provide some coordinates to students unfamiliar with the history of the area of Rhetorical Studies in the United States. It is also a conventional history in the sense that it does not attend to the historical exclusions enacted by the discipline, but rather moves with the grain of history as it has been told by the discipline's predominantly white, cis-gender, and masculine archons.

The section opens with a brief narrative about the founding of the Cornell School of Rhetoric in 1914, and offers two "canonical" articles that descend from that tradition of rhetoric. It then offers a three-part bibliography of (Part 1) ne0-Aristotelian criticism, (Part 2) the "On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic" conversation, and (Part 3) "The Rhetorical Situation." The latter two parts ("Epistemic" and "Situation") represent major developments in Rhetorical Studies beginning in the late 1960s.

The emergence of the Cornell School of Rhetoric in 1914 occurred at the same time that the Speech Communication Association (now National Communication Association) came into existence. In that year, a group of dissatisfied teachers of speech decided to break away from the National Council of Teachers of English and form their own professional organization. … This group of rebel teachers officially established an organization that they called the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking. They founded a journal too, entitled Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking (now the Quarterly Journal of Speech), which began publication in 1915 under the editorship of James M. O'Neill of the University of Wisconsin, who also served as the first president of the Association. This journal was crucial to the welfare and future direction of the newly formed Association, because it was the channel through which the discipline could be shaped and the teachers of speech (at the time, mainly teachers of English) could be given a professional identity.

The canonical work of the Cornell School is Studies in Rhetoric and Public Speaking, and two of its standout Herbert August Wichelns's (1925) "The Literary Criticism of Oratory," an essay that has been widely reprinted and that is clearly the foundation on which twentieth century rhetorical criticism in speech communication was built. The chapter is still in print in various anthologies of rhetorical criticism.

Herbert A. Wichelns, “The Literary Criticsm of Oratory/” Reprinted from A.M. Drummond, ed., Studies in Rhetoric and Public Speaking in Honor of James Albert Winans (NY: The Century Co., 1925).

Wichelns argued that to class oratory and other modes of public persuasive discourse as literature, and to assume that the methods and standards of literary criticism exhaust the task of the critic of oratory, is to miss the point. Whereas literary criticism is focused upon topoi of wisdom, beauty, and truth of the literary text, rhetorical criticism assessed the persuasive effect of situated oratory. As a verbal art, oratory could be studied in part by the literary tools, but oratory was also part of the art of politics. Wichelns lamented that, "We have not much serious criticism of oratory," and asserted that, "the conditions of democracy necessitate both the making of speeches and the study of the art." The essay demonstrates what those who knew Wichelns often admired—his deeply original and analytical mind and his sure sense of judgment and gravity.

He also argued that there ought to be a method of criticism specific to oratory, consisting of particular ‘standards, categories of judgment,’ responding to public address with attentiveness to its (broadly) political entailments, and derived from existing practices of literary criticism. He responds to literary critics who treat oratory as a subgenre of literature or dismiss it in passing as a lesser form of written art. Oratory brings with it its own considerations, and is “both more broad and more limited than literary criticism.” It is broad because it is concerned with permanent values, the “voice of the human spirit … to men of all ages and times.” If literary criticism is concerned with the “permanent work,” rhetorical criticism is concerned with the truth produced in the oration for a given time and place. Wichelns recognized that rhetorical criticism studies politics (“in the broadest sense”), and how the people’s ideas are understood through the oratory of their leaders. (Campbell and Jamieson, “Form and Genre in Rhetorical Criticism: An Introduction." Form and Genre: Shaping Rhetorical Action”, p. 411).

Ernest J. Wrage. “Public Address: A Study in Social and Intellectual History,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 33 (1947), 451-457.

Well after Wicheln’s publication, Ernest Wrage published “Public Address: A Study in Social and Intellectual History” which made important amendments to the study of political and public speech. Wrage broadens Wichelns’s conception of rhetorical contribution by suggesting that it can make important contributions to social and intellectual history. He argues that ideas are produced by particular historical contexts, are linked to change, and have social consequences. According to Wrage, “the ideas, values, and beliefs of a culture are expressed in speeches.” Rhetorical critics can make valuable contributions to social and intellectual history because they are trained to understand the nuances of meaning that come from analyzing discourse in its historical context. Embedded in this approach is a shift from speaker centered-ness to idea-centeredness, and re-situates persuasion from the level of people (Neo-Aristotelian) to a cultural level.

Wrage’s central claim is that the study of public address ought to be diverted away from the particular use of technique by great orators for personal persuasion and redirected as a means of retelling the history of ideas with a rhetorical sensibility. For Wrage, the techniques of the individual orator are less useful than the speeches themselves, which offer a novel and realistic means of recounting history. “To adopt the rhetorical perspective is actually to approximate more closely a genuinely historical point of view when analyzing and interpreting speeches as documents of ideas in social history.” (455) His understanding of rhetoric emphasizes the ‘minor’ speeches, orations, and public acts of speech that have meaning not only based on the historical context and an intimate portrait of the speaker, but on the fact that these texts were created as “a mode of communication by means of which something of the thought of the speaker is incorporated and expressed in language in ways which make for ready comprehension and acceptance by one or more audiences.” (455)

PART 1: Public Address and Neo-Aristotelian Criticism

Examples of Close Textual Analysis

Edwin Black (1965) Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method.

According to Edwin Black's 1965 Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method, there were three prevailing kinds of rhetorical criticism in the first half of the 20th century.

  • First,  the movement study treats the discourse as an element in a complex historical forces that shape public opinion and public policy.
  • Second, the psychological study reports gards the discourse as a symptom or consequence of the personal history of the rhetor, and as an element in a social configuration.
  • Third, the neo-Aristotelian approach treats rhetorical discourses as discrete communication in specific contexts designed for specific purposes (p. 35).

In neo-Aristotelian criticism, the critic identifies the classification of rhetorical discourses - forensic, deliberative, or epideictic - and then the artistic proofs: ethos, pathos, and logos. Then, it assesses the discourse through categories of invention, arrangement, memory, delivery, and style. But beyond the technical parameters of rhetoric, it also identifies the reception of the discourse by the audience. This is based on several capacities by human to judge information as such to elicit a response.

Black also argues that neo-aristotelian criticism, which is predominant within the discipline of rhetorical criticism between 1950-1970 cannot account for the effectiveness/success of a speech or piece of oratory, given better historical and cultural hindsight. Rhetorical criticism is redefined not just as the components of analyzing a speech within a traditional Neo-Aristotelian sense, but also the how and why a speech moves within a given contextual discourse (discourse being greater than the specific exchange between speaker and audience). The larger purpose of rhetorical criticism is to situate a text within a larger history and context in order to evaluate its success outside of its immediate effects. Black is also very concerned about evaluating the “goodness” of a speech.

Opinions, doxa, play a major role in Black's framework of rhetorical criticism because rhetoric is concerned with what is true or false as constructed by the speaker/rhetor. And while the mind is able to make an opinion of anything, its basis upon opinions are constructed through convictions, pistis, of the mind. There is a passage that Black cites Plato, who asks Socrates, “And persuading them is making have an opinion, is it not?” (p. 110). To persuade, one needs to reach and motivate an audience, making doxa and pistis inseparable in the act of persuasion. Black also calls belief (doxa) that not an act but a state. There is no systematic process from which we come to hold a belief. Each belief is created through different value systems. Those value systems can be construed by the prejudices and predispositions which make us react. Black describes them as the ready application of response that allow us to make a decision before judgement (p. 115).

One of the central criticisms leveraged against neo-Aristotelian critics is that they defer to the goals of the rhetor (speaker-centered) without evaluating them.  Black, for instance, critiques Hitchcock’s formulaic evaluation of Jonathan Edward’s speech (a criticism organized in terms of organization, ethical proofs, logical proofs, and style) and argues that even at its best neo-Aristotelianism is unable to account for speeches that fall outside neo-Aristotelian categories and even truncates those speeches that do. He demonstrates the inherent limitations of the neo-Aristotelian approach in the case study of John Jay Chapman’s “Coatesville Address”:

Moving as it is, moving enough so that the bare calculation of its immediate effects is insufficient to account for it, moving enough so that the contemporary reader cannot feel its power as having been spent on that audience of three. The speech is not a cold marble monument. It lives. But to see its life, we must find its proper context. The context of the Coatesville address is not the vacant grocery store in 1912. Rather, the discourse must be understood as joining the dialogue participated in by Jefferson, Toqueville, Lincoln, Melville, Henry Adams, Samuel Clemens, Santyana, and Faulkner -- a dialogue on the moral dimension of the American experience. (83-84)

Black, in other words, argues that under a neo-Aristotelian approach the speech would be evaluated as ineffective because it did not make an immediate impact. He states we must “reiterate that the speech still lives,” that “it may be that Chapman’s Coatesville Address is only just now finding its understanding audience, and it may be that that audience will grow larger and more attentive with every passing day.” (88) Black also highlights how “the speech preserves a morally significant event; it makes it permanent in history -- timeless.” (89)

Black's book, Rhetorical Criticism, attends to the way that time/timing, namely how a piece ‘stands the test of time’ given larger historical contexts and the immediate context of the speech/text. It is a direct response to Neo-Aristotelian criticism as being limited in scope and warrants rhetorical analyses of lesser known texts, and was widely adopted among Rhetoric scholars. In his conclusion, An Alternate Frame of Reference, Black advances three avenues for future rhetorical critics:

  • Rhetorical situations. First, we must assume that there is a limited number of situations in which a rhetor can find himself [sic]. (p. 133)
  • Rhetorical strategies. Second, we must assume that there is a limited number of ways in which a rhetor can and will respond rhetorically to any given situational type. (p. 133)
  • Audience effects. Third, we must assume that the recurrence of a given situational type through history will provide the critic with information on the rhetorical responses available in that situation, and with this information the critic can better understand and evaluate any specific rhetorical discourse in which he [sic] may be interested. (p. 133)

The Forbes Hill and Karlyn Kohrs Campbell Debate

The Hill/Campbell debate is significant because it staged a conflict over the values espoused by the neo-Aristotelian framework. Specifically, it engaged the topic of whether rhetorical criticism should only be a diagnostic framework for the efficacy of speeches (Hill) or if it should also express judgment about the content of those speeches (Campbell). The debate concerns an article first published by Hill about Nixon's "Vietnamization" address, and then a response by Campbell that took Hill to task for sanitizing the morally degenerate qualities of the speaker.

Forbes Hill, “Conventional Wisdom - Traditional Form” (1972)

Hill’s essay is a rhetorical analysis of Nixon’s address to the nation on November 3, 1969 using neo-Aristotelian method of analysis. He looks exclusively at the method to make an argument against other critiques that Hill describes as inadequate at using a strict neo-Aristotelian approach. He delineates his method by establishing parameters of what a critic should do. First, he must outline the situation, then specify the group of auditors and define the kind of decision they are to make, and finally, reveals the choices and disposition of the speaker by drawing on three intertwined persuasive factors - the logical, the psychological, and the characterological.

Hill claims that it is wrongheaded to “espouse a theory of criticism that requires [the critic] to commit herself at all.” Rather, Nixon’s speech ought to be analyzed in the context of responding to a particular audience at a particular time.

Hill claims Neo-Aristotelian criticism to be apolitical: it engages the situational, logical, and psychological elements of oratory while leaving the critic unattached to demystifying this rhetoric; it refuses to provide a metaphysical truth claim about the work in question. The essay attends to the rhetorical elements of ethos (disinterestedness) pathos (fear and confidence) and logos (enthymeme and major/minor premises), form (proem) stylistics, and context.

. In Hill’s estimation, an analysis of Nixon’s oratory demonstrates how fidelity to the canonical texts of rhetoric is preferable to partisan accounts of the text. The Aristotelian framework appears in the use of the following terms:

  • Proem: An Aristotelian structure of oratory that includes “narrative, proofs both constructive and refutative, and epilogue.”
  • Enthymeme: An abbreviated syllogistic form whereby the minor premise is concealed by the major premise/conclusion set.

The situation for Nixon's speech is also important to Hill's analysis because the State of the Union is no ordinary address to the nation. It is prime time event with an upwards reach of hundreds of millions of adults from heterogeneous backgrounds and opinions. Of particular importance is the context of the address as it primarily describes the current state of affairs regarding the Vietnam war. In Hill's estimation, the primary audience for the address were those “Americans not driven by a clearly defined ideological commitment to oppose or support the war at any cost” (375). This group is targeted because Hill describes them as decision-makers concerning the future outcome of policies that will deliberate two major tenets of Nixon’s argument: war and peace.

Another major tenet in the argument by Hill is the way Nixon’s builds his own ethos. The implication is, mirroring Woodrow Wilson, a strategic goal to win a peace that will avoid any future wars through a “peroration of real eloquence” (p. 384). However, in this particular assessment is also a key site where Hill and Campbell come into conflict.

Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, “Conventional Wisdom - Traditional Form: A Rejoinder” (1973)

Campbell refutes the “true faith” upon which Hill sees Nixon’s ethos. One particular instance was the truth and ethical assessments and his treatment of the target audience. According to Aristotle himself, truth and justice are the essential foundation upon which a speech must abide by. This puts the argument posited by Hill at odds with Aristotle's rhetoric as Hill remarks, “neo-Aristotelian criticism does not warrant us to estimate the truth of Nixon’s statements or the reality of the values he assumes” (p. 385).

Hill disregards whether or not Nixon’s speech is truthful, and considers this to be inconsequential to the general analysis he provides. However, Campbell sees Hill’s argument as being one of “truth and acceptability of the major premises while recognizing the deception central to the logos of his address” (p. 452).

In Campbell’s assessment, Nixon’s argument is divisive. She sees the presidency as a symbolic institution for all citizens in a republic-democracy. This poses a problem since Nixon by implying the “silent majority” as the decision-makers in this debate and targeting them as the audience who he is speaking to. This dismisses the democratic symbolism of the presidency as for the people by the people. Instead it juxtaposes two groups which creates a form of disunity and calls for the “silent majority” to dissent from the “vocal minority” who are more visibly vocal, as the term describes. Campbell sees this as a threat to the political process because it negates the democratic principles of “liberty to dissent from policy without being labeled in terms that suggest that dissent is subversive, if not traitorous (p. 454).

Lastly, the critique Campbell presents contests the "objective" basis of  neo-Aristotelianism. Campbell argues that the conception of objectivity that Hill strives for is flawed because it “requires the critic to remain entirely within the closed universe of discourse and the ideology or point of view it presents” (p. 453). Campbell continues by suggesting that criticism is also conceived as rhetoric since “its impulse is epideictic - to praise and blame; its method is forensic - reason giving. But ultimately it enters into the deliberative realm in which choices must be made” (p. 454).

PART 2: Epistemic Rhetoric, or Rhetoric as a “Way of Knowing”

The study of rhetoric and public address underwent additional dramatic transformations in the late 1960s, with Robert Scott’s “On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic” (1967) and Lloyd Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation” (1968). These theoretical touchstones fundamentally changed the way that rhetorical criticism was done and inaugurated vigorous debates over the definition of rhetoric, objects one could consider rhetorical, and the setting in which rhetoric can transpire. These debates were disputes on the status and meaning of two signifiers: situation and epistemology.

On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic

The Classical Turn in Epistemic Rhetoric

Robert L. Scott, “On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic,” Central States Speech Journal 18 (1967): 1-19.

In 1967, Robert L. Scott published “On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic,” which advanced the thesis that rhetoric creates social reality. Rhetorical scholars were obliged to move toward a conception of rhetoric as the moment-by-moment creation of truth. In subsequent articles, Scott and others borrowed the philosophical tools of social constructionism to define rhetoric’s generative capacities.  Throughout, Scott maintained that a key virtue of epistemic rhetoric was its novel ethical imperative. As he first noted in 1967, the world-making rhetor should “act with intentions for good consequences, but … accept the responsibilities for all the consequences in so far as they can be known.” Spanning from 1967 to 1990, Scott's article staged a disciplinary conflict over the terms 'rhetoric' and 'truth' that has shaped the contemporary landscape of rhetorical theory and criticism ever since.

The term “epistemic” describes “a way of knowing,” and Scott’s definition broadens the acceptable scope of rhetoric considerably from its roots in public address. The idea of a rhetorical epistemology suggests that rhetoric is a way of knowing the world, and that rhetoric’s ways of knowing constitute a discrete body of knowledge. Scott juxtaposes the philosophical commonplace of Truth and certainty against Toulmin’s theory of argument, which “[rejects] prior and enabling truth as the epistemological basis for a rhetoric.” Instead, “rhetoric may be viewed not as a matter of giving effectiveness to truth but of creating truth.”

Ten years following Scott’s article, rhetorical scholars were dramatically divided between competing epistemic claims. Although he had written that critics should “should … accept the responsibilities for all the consequences in so far as they can be known,” it was clear that the article had produced disruptive and unpredictable consequences. Either social Truth was the effect of rhetoric, or truth was the pre-existing ‘stuff’ of rhetorical invention. The former, “intersubjectivist” (or consensus) approach to rhetoric, asserted that ‘truth’ was social knowledge created by shared symbolic relationships. Rhetoric, for the intersubjectivists, was the process of creating commonly shared social knowledge.  Conversely, “objectivists” (or perspectivists) argued that “a world of entities independent of our attitudes, beliefs, and values” preceded rhetorical action.  For this camp, objective truth was a horizon that could only be apprehended by one or another rhetorical perspective or point of view.  Rhetoric was therefore unable to create reality: it was rather “a tool which attempts to maximize the argumentative clash of opposing ideas.”

Thomas B. Farrell, “Knowledge, Consensus, and Rhetorical Theory,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 62 (1976): 1-14.

In the ensuing years, critiques of the objectivist and intersubjectivist camps multiplied. Resembling the intersubjectivist position, Thomas B. Farrell’s theory of social knowledge emphasized the role of consensus in constituting public truths.  But whereas Brummett’s intersubjectivism held that all “human reality always has a meaningful and symbolic substance,” Farrell insisted on a strict separation between “social” and “technical” knowledge. Technical knowledge described matters of certainty that required no deliberation (i.e. whether it is presently raining). Rhetoric was concerned with social knowledge, “knowledge in a state of potential or indeterminance … validated through the reasoned judgment and action of an audience.”  As Farrell put it, “[T]here is something which this art is about. That ‘something’ is a kind of knowledge which is attributed, audience-dependent, potential in state, generative, and normative in implication.”

Celeste M. Condit-Railsback, “Beyond Rhetorical Relativism: A Structural-Material Model of Truth and Objective Reality,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 69 (1983): 351-63.

In 1983, Celeste M. Condit offered a competing position, landing ostensibly more on the side of the objectivists.  Separating “objective truth” from “objective reality,” Condit postulated that reality was a rhetorical constraint that “frequently impinge[s] upon a language network to restrain its still-impressive creative possibilities.”  Condit also contested the intersubjectivist claim that reality is entirely relative to cultural context. There were, in fact, universal constraints that restricted symbolic action; reality was not just a linguistic play. Materiality (neurochemistry and hunger, for instance) placed finite limits on the possibilities for human speech.   The distinction between objective truth and reality also set Condit’s theory apart from other objectivists because she insisted that their characteristically asymptotic metaphors (that critics can ‘approach’ or ‘approximate’ reality) ignored the heterogeneity of possible language structures used to describe matter: [2]

Truth cannot be tied directly to material reality because, although only one material reality may exist (at a given time), millions of possible language structures for describing and interacting with that material reality exist. There is hence not one truth to be discovered and approached, but many temporarily useful characterizations among which we may choose. (357)

The give and take between “objective truth” and “objective reality” finessed a complex intertwining of rhetoric and matter. Objective truth admitted some degree of contingency as language structures fluctuated; but objective reality was a point of determinacy, one that demarcated the true from the false.

Re-igniting the Epistemic Debate

In 1990, the Quarterly Journal of Speech published a forum on “The Reported Demise of Epistemic Rhetoric,” hosting a dialogue between many of its major contributors.  Citing the decline of scholarship devoted to epistemic rhetoric in the previous decade, Barry Brummett speculated that the movement had “burned itself out” (69-72). By contrast, Richard A. Cherwitz and James W. Hikins denied outright that epistemic rhetoric was dead (73-77). Alan G. Gross boldly titled his contribution “The Rhetoric of Science IS Epistemic Rhetoric” (69).  Taking stock of the debate, Thomas Farrell noted that the confusion over what rhetoric meant set a dangerous precedent for future scholarship:

If we equate rhetoric with symbols generally, we will conflate meaning and knowledge and find rhetorical texts everywhere: from wallpaper to wallflowers; from fables to (I know some of our discipline’s serious scholars will find this hard to swallow) food. Of course, because of our own diluted sense of what rhetoric is, we won’t be able to do much with these texts, once we find them. But find them we will. We will have texts galore, but no code. If we think of rhetoric as linguisticality generally, or perhaps the intentionality of perception, we will have similar problems. We will have – if you will – “so much to study, so little to say.” (82)

According to Farrell, un-tethering rhetoric from its epistemic backing would multiply rhetorical texts at the expense of a coherent and well-defined discipline. Just two years after the Quarterly Journal of Speech forum, new theoretical agendas for rhetorical scholarship reignited the old conflict. Edward Schiappa’s 1992 vision to renew rhetorical theory adopted a critical Foucauldian vocabulary to argue that the fifth-century invention of the term ‘rhêtorikê’ functioned as an “institution of knowledge” that defined “the scope of permissible objects and objectives” of Athenian political oratory. [2] Any serious rhetorical theory would have to grapple first with rhetoric’s linguistic emergence as a meta-discourse, the first systematic philosophy of speech.  Soon after Schiappa’s article appeared in print, Steve Whitson and John Poulakos published “Nietzsche and the Aesthetics of Rhetoric.” Offering a “discursive lifeboat for those who had abandoned the ship of epistemics,” Whitson and Poulakos argued that the study of rhetoric had force because it insisted on the impermanence of all meta-discourse. Truth was a purely aesthetic performance, an alluring illusion created by signs, affect, and experience.

Once again, rhetoric would either be objective or inter-subjective; either verifiable and visible or the ideological and aesthetic effect of rhetorical artistry.

PART 3: (The) Rhetorical Situation(s)

Students unfamiliar with the rhetorical situation may also find the following longform review of Bitzer's framework helpful.

Examples of the Rhetorical Situation

The rhetorical situation is not a single framework, but an ongoing debate about where rhetoric happens, why it happens, and how human communicators are implicated. The successive modification of these theories often is framed as a debate, a back-and-forth between different authors that lead to revised versions of the same theory. If these “debates” typically comprise the substance of an academic literature review, it is important to know how you are either adopting the assumptions of one or another of these frameworks or, alternatively, building upon them to offer something new. It is also important to know what frameworks or assumptions we are not beholden to, so as to define the rhetorical contribution of our work more precisely for a scholarly audience.

The progression of readings on the rhetorical situation offered below was selected for three reasons.

  1. To offer an overview of the evolution of the “rhetorical situation” debate and how different theorists have made modifications to the theory over time
  2. To offer the “situation” and “ecology” as two enduring versions of this framework
  3. To offer examples of these frameworks, specifically, using readings that do not invoke them explicitly.

The point of these examples is to draw attention to how rhetorical critics signal their commitment to the “situation” or “ecology” model even when not citing these explicitly. I also encourage students to consider looking at the introduction of Palczewski’s “1919 Prison Special” as an example of how to scaffold an essay that embraces a rhetorical situation-derived framework.

The term “situation” is significant to rhetorical studies generally because of the way that it tied a theory of rhetoric to a specific set of elements. Written in the decline of neo-Aristotelian rhetorical criticism, Bitzer’s model offered an alternative to rhetorical critics, who could continue to be students of speech and history. Although the rhetorical situation is significant for the genre of rhetorical criticism it yielded (and which is still widely popular today), it is also important for the way that it has stimulated scholarly debate over what can count as rhetoric’s ‘situation,’ which has lead to a number of alternative theorizations. This breadth of approaches covered by these lecture notes models a “conversation” in the field, which here takes the form of a negotiation over the utility of a theory and its necessary modification across a generation of different commitments.

Lloyd Bitzer, "The Rhetorical Situation” in Philosophy & Rhetoric 1(1968): 1-14.
Formula: rhetorical situation →(determines)→ rhetor’s utterance/response

Bitzer defines the rhetorical situation as “the nature of those contexts in which speakers or writers create rhetorical discourse,” or a specialized kind of context that calls a discourse into being. It is “a particular discourse comes into existence because of some specific condition or situation which invites utterance.” The situation “dictates” the rhetorical response in the same way that a question controls the answer, or a problem shapes its solution. The rhetorical situation has 3 elements: (1) exigence (an imperfection marked by urgency), (2) the audience, (3) and the constraints which influence the rhetor’s relationship to the audience.

Why is contextrhetorical situation? Rhetorical discourse is more than a meaning made intelligible by history, and more specific than what occurs in a setting with speaker, audience, subject and purpose (what else is circulating in that moment).  To say “persuasive situation” is too general as well. Follows Aristotle (implicitly) to say that there’s an inherent capacity to be persuaded. The rhetorical situation is also not historical context: The rhetorical situation is to historical context as the tree is to the soil it grows from. Just as one cannot predict the tree that will grow from the soil alone, context does not determine the rhetoric of the moment. It’s not just because rhetoric has occurred at a precise historical moment that a situation is rhetorical -- it is because a confluence of three specific elements (exigence, audience, constraint) has yielded it.

What is Bitzer’s Definition of Rhetoric? Bitzer conceives of rhetoric as a spoken address, and defines rhetoric as pragmatic (i.e. as a meaning that can be derived from a specific surrounding context) and in terms of its function to enact action and change. He also states that rhetoric is a mode of altering reality (p. 219) and comes into being because of conditions that require a response. Rhetoric is always a particular utterance or a specific instance of speech, and is organized by the occasion to which it responds. “The rhetorical situation may be defined as a complex of persons, objects, events, and objects presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation can constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence.”

The rhetorical situation’s constituent elements are defined as follows:

  1. The exigence is “an imperfection marked by urgency,” or the motivating crisis for the rhetorical act. It is located in reality and is objective and observable in public. Not all exigencies are rhetorical because not all crises can be altered through the intervention of a rhetorical discourse. (Imagine screaming into a hurricane) Ultimately, if you can’t modify the exigency through discourse, it’s not a rhetorical exigency. In a rhetorical situation, the ‘controlling exigence’  specifies the audience to be addressed and the change to be effected.
  2. The audience is circumscribed in a way similar to the exigence. It is not all the auditors present for a speech, but rather only those actors capable of making change. A campaign speech urging listeners to vote reaches far more people than its rhetorical audience, which would include those with rights of enfranchisement and who are not otherwise prevented from voting. By excluding unnaturalized citizens and children, for instance, the rhetorical audience is selectively defined against a backdrop of “mere hearers.”
  3. The constraints of the rhetorical situation include persons, events, objects, relations that are a part of situation because they have the power to constrain decision making. Bitzer identifies two classes of constraints that fall into the Aristotelian categories of artistic proof (those originating from the rhetor) and inartistic proof (those originating from an external world). Artistic constraints are those originated by the rhetor and their method, whereas inartistic constraints originate from the situation, and are thus outside of the rhetor’s control.

Taken together, the situation the rhetor perceives amounts to an invitation to create and present discourse. (222) Although rhetorical situation invites response, it doesn’t invite any response, but a fitting response. A response that is inappropriate to the situation to which it responds is not rhetorical; to be rhetorical, a response must be prescribed by the situation, it must fit the situation to which it responds: “One might say that every situation prescribes its fitting response, the rhetor may not read the prescription accurately.” (223) Rhetorical situations also exhibit structures which are simple or complex and more or less organized. A strong rhetorical situation is one that is rigorously structured like a courtroom. A weak rhetorical situation is one that is disconnected, scattered, or that has multiple exigencies. Finally, rhetorical situations come into existence, mature, and finally decay, persist, or recur.

Some important distinctions from the Bitzer framework:

  • Bitzer’s framework, which remains popular today, was developed out of pragmatist assumptions about language in which the meaning of speech must depend on bounded, contextual features.
  • A “context” is not the same as “rhetorical situation,” which is more narrowly defined as the confluence of “rhetorical exigence,” “rhetorical audience” and “rhetorical constraints.”
  • “Rhetorical exigence” is (a) an urgency marked by imperfection and (b) is capable of being remedied by means of speech. There are many, many non-rhetorical exigencies.
  • “Rhetorical audience” is not the same as the “auditors” or “recievers” of a speaker’s message, but those who possess rhetorical agency, or the capacity to act.
  • “Rhetorical constraints” are those ideas attitudes and beliefs that limit what can be said or how what is said may be received. It is not the set of all possible limitations on a speaker, but is similarly bound by concerns of exigence and audience.

Richard Vatz “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6 (1973): 154-161.
Formula: rhetor’s utterance/invention →(determines)→ rhetorical situation

If Bitzer argues that meaning is derived from its originating situation, then Vatz argues that meaning is determined by the originating rhetor. This is a reversal of the original claim: whereas Bitzer claims that exigences invite rhetorical utterances, Vatz claims that rhetorical utterances by skilled rhetors create the exigencies to which they appear to “respond”. In his words, “no situation can have a nature independent of the perception of its interpreter or independent of the rhetoric with which he chooses to characterize it.” Because there is always a choice of which situation that a speaker can respond, they can never run out of possible contexts that could define the situation. Information is not only chosen but translated into meaning, which is an interpretive and creative act. The rhetor must, in other words, decide whether or not to make certain features of context salient in their speech. When we see meaning as the result of a creative act and not a discovery, “rhetoric will be perceived as the supreme discipline that it deserves to be.”

Scott Consigny, “Rhetoric and Its Situations” in Philosophy & Rhetoric 7 (1974): 175-186.

Scott Consigny enters the debate between Bitzer and Vatz as a mediating presence between the extremes of situation-determining-rhetor’s speech and rhetor’s speech-determining situation. He characterizes Bitzer’s position as arguing for an “objective rhetorical situation” that “dominates” and “determines”  the rhetorical act, and Vatz’s as “emphasizing the role of the rhetor,” who ultimately creates the situation for their speech. He argues that “Bitzer and Vatz together pose an antinomy for a coherent theory of rhetoric ”and introduces “integrity” and “receptivity” as new concepts which help to bridge this divide. Consigny also argues for a shift away from “situation” and toward “topics” as a broader category for rhetorical analysis.

In response to this diagnosis, Consigny proposes that the rhetor “requires a capacity which allows him to be receptive and responsive to the particularities of novel contexts,” and labels rhetoric “a ‘heuristic’ art, allowing the rhetor to discover real issues in indeterminate situations” on condition of the rhetor’s integrity and receptivity:

  • “As an integral art, the art of rhetoric provides the rhetor with ‘integrity’ such that he [sic] is able to disclose and manage factors in novel situations without his action being predetermined.” (180)
  • “The art of rhetoric must meet the condition of receptivity, allowing the rhetor to become engaged in individual situations without simply inventing and thereby predetermining which problems he [sic] is going to find in them. (181)

The final move of the essay is to place “situation” under Aristotle’s larger umbrella term of “topics,” which is split into two sub-categories (instrument and realm).

  • As an instrument, the “topic is a device which allows the rhetor to discover, through selection and arrangement, that which is relevant and persuasive in particular situations. … The mastery of topics permits the rhetor to enter into and function in a wide variety of indeterminate fields irrespective of subject matter.” (181) [Consigny argues that Bitzer misses this understanding of topic].
  • As a realm, “the topic is a location or site, the Latin situs, from which we derive our term ‘situation’. … the ‘place’ of the rhetor is that region or field marked by the particularities of the persons, acts, and agencies which the rhetor discloses and establishes meaningful relationships.” (182) [Consigny argues that Vatz misses this understanding of topic].

Consigny finally proposes that “the two terms of [the] topic” may be treated as “contradictories” (i.e. an opposition in which “one becomes the negation of the other” [situation/speaker; anarchy/totalitarianism (184-5)] or as correlatives [“in which each term is necessary for the understanding of the other.” (185)] “Using topics,” Consigny concludes, “the rhetor has universal devices which allow him [sic] to engage in particular situations, maintaining an ‘integrity’ but yet being receptive to the heteronomies of each case. The real question in rhetorical theory is not whether the situation or the rhetor is ‘dominant,’ but the extent, in each case, to which the rhetor can discover and control indeterminate matter, using his art of topics to make sense of what would otherwise remain simply absurd.” (185)

Barbara Biesecker, “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from Within the Thematic of Différance,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 22 (1989): 110-130.

Biesecker enters the debate between Bitzer and Vatz by refusing the determinative logic that either use. Biesecker offers two observations to recalibrate the debate:

  1. First, Biesecker centers the idea of the text that is transacted from situation to rhetor (and vice-versa). In both cases, the text mediates the identity of the listening subject, which is constituted in a space that is external to the particular rhetorical situation.
  2. Second, Biesecker characterizes the conventional reasoning of the rhetorical situation as a logic of influence, which assumes a fully coherent subject whose identity is not up for re-articulation. Instead, she proposes (with Jacques Derrida) moving toward a logic of articulation in which a subject’s  “fixed” identity is the provisional and practical outcome of a symbolic engagement between the speaker and audience.

Biesecker then turns to Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive reading strategy, which is claimed to be an appropriate way to reframe the Bitzer/Vatz rhetorical situation debate, and which allegedly takes the rhetoricity of texts seriously. As a reading strategy, deconstruction is a way of reading that seeks to come to terms with the way that all language attempts to form unity from existing conditions of division. In the rhetorical situation, this “division” describes the differentiated and contingent subject-positions that are potentially available for an audience.

Placed into the terms of the rhetorical situation, Bitzer and Vatz have equally incorrect understandings of the cause/effect relationship between the rhetorical situation and rhetorical invention. Bitzer sees all rhetoric as an effect structure of the rhetorical situation; Vatz sees the situation as an effect structure of the rhetor’s strategic rhetoric. But even as Vatz rejects Bitzer’s structure, he affirms a larger logic of influence. The underwriting logic of influence presumes that the speaker and/or situation have authority over the text, and that the audience is a sovereign and rational subject. Rhetoric in this context is a mediating force between fixed essences (audience identities) that encounter a variable circumstance (speaker/situation) which exercises control over them. But the fact that this subject seems so stable is an illusion, distracting from the possible subject-positions that rhetoric might activate.

The difficult-to-enunciate difference between the variants of audience that might be produced is ‘différance,’ or ‘difference with an a’. Différance marks an internal and originary division, and has a split definition: ‘to differ,’ or a difference of identity, and ‘to defer,’ or a difference in time or space. Derrida famously deconstructs Saussure and argues that language is neither references a particular underlying concept (a signified), nor does it refer to something primordial that pre-exists the sign system. Any positive value of language is constituted in and against a system of differences, and no element of a sign can function without reference to its difference from others in the sign system. Différance makes the movement of signification (changing meanings, identities) possible and “generates a discourse by a set of differences.” This discourse, the presumptive ‘whole’ of a text or audience, is possible because speech and writing suture and implicit difference that is foundational to language itself. Hence the need for a logic of articulation, which captures the constitution of audience as a temporary displacement of plurality into unity.

Mary Garrett and Xaiosui Xiao, “The Rhetorical Situation Revisited,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 23 (1993): 30-40.

Garrett and Xiao claim that although there have been many theorizations about the rhetorical situation, even Biesecker does not reject the model, but only modifies it. They present a case study based on texts and political discourses from responses to the Opium Wars: “We started out explicating a collection of documents and, in the process, were led to make significant expansions and refinements in the notion of the rhetorical situation” (30) “Chinese themselves came to feel that Chines perception of the exigency presented by the wars lagged behind the historical events themselves.”  This delay is now seen to have caused significant political and cultural harm, and their major question concerns the exigency lag. The authors make three major alterations to the rhetorical situation to account for their study:

  1. “Seeing the audience rather than the speaker as the pivotal elements as an active entity which is crucial in determining exigency, constraints, and the ‘fittingness’ of rhetor’s response.” (30)
  2. “Recognizing the powerful influence of a culture’s discourse tradition in shaping both speaker and audience perceptions of the same elements” (30-31).
  3. “Placing much greater stress on the interactive, organic, nature of the rhetorical situation” (31)

The authors are critical of the rhetorical situation because thus far, “much of the early [rhetorical situation] debate revolved around the facticity or “giveness” of the exigency.” The authors also make the claim that theory should be built in response to special cases. The “various improvements and interpretations” of the rhetorical situation “made a valuable contribution in highlighting certain aspects or possibilities of the rhetorical situation, yet none accounted for the complex interactions and nuances of the case we were pursuing.” (32) They adopt what they call the “discourse tradition,” a source and limiting horizon for a rhetor and for the audience of the rhetorical situation. A discourse tradition directly or indirectly participates in the rhetorical situation because it generates needs and promotes audience interests that must be met by new discourses, cultivates an audience’s expectations about the appropriate forms of discourses—subject matter, (38) and affects an audience’s recognition and interpretation of the rhetorical exigency (39). “It might not be going too far to say that, by creating or regenerating needs and promoting interests in an audience, a discourse tradition produces the conditions for its own continuity, recirculation, and reproduction.” (39) The authors then propose a model of the rhetorical situation out of the discourse tradition that suggests that it is possible to keep all three elements in a dynamic tension, and requires seeing AUDIENCE as the active center. The rhetor is usually NOT separate from audience, and rhetorical exigencies are expressions of situational audience’s unsolved: questions, concerns, anxieties,frustrations, or confusions -- all of which may be modified by discourse. Constraints reflect audience expectations for appropriate discourse in those circumstances.

Jenny Edbauer-Rice, “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies” in Rhetoric Society Quarterly 35 (2005): 5-24.

Edbauer-Rice operates from the assumption that rhetorical situations operate within a network of lived practical consciousness or structures of feeling, and seeks to “destabilize [the] discrete borders of a rhetorical situation.” In this new framework, an exigence should be conceived of within a context of “affective ecologies” comprised of material experiences and public feelings. The theory begins with Michael Warner’s “Publics and Counterpublics,” which (among other claims) critiques the sender-receiver-text model of communication. Edbauer cites Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation”  as a productive complication of the sender-receiver model. “This starting point places the question of rhetoric—and the defining characteristic of rhetoricalness squarely within the scene of the situational context.” Although “Bitzer’s theories as well as the critiques and modifications have generated a body of scholarship that stretches our own notions of ‘rhetorical publicness’ into a contextual framework that permanently troubles sender-receiver models,” (7) the rhetorical situation does not account for a situation’s “constitutive circulation.” Drawing upon Biesecker, Edbauer argues that “various models of rhetorical situation tend to describe rhetoric as a totality of discrete elements: audience, rhetor, exigence, constraints, text.” (7) To the contrary, however, “the exigence is more like a complex of various audience/speaker perceptions” there can be no pure exigence that does not involve various mixes of felt interests.” (8) What we dub exigency is “more like a shorthand way of describing a series of events.” (8)

Shifting from rhetorical situation to rhetorical ecology, Edbauer aims “to add the dimensions of history and movement (back) into our visions/versions of rhetorics public situations, reclaiming rhetoric from artificially elementary frameworks.” (9) Rhetoric is a public creation, and offers “rhetorical ecologies” as a substitute for “rhetorical situations.” Whereas rhetorical situations describe the conditions of possibility for rhetoric that responds to a situation, a rhetorical ecology describes the counter-rhetorics that develop between situations. Whereas traditional models of situation depend etymologically and conceptually on the situs, a static, noun-process that fixes locations, the distribution of ecology implies a viral, verb-process in which movement and emotion are central features. “A given rhetoric is not contained by the elements that comprise its rhetorical situation.  Rather, a rhetoric emerges already infected by the viral intensities that are circulating in the social field.” (14) If situations-as-situs imply a border or limit, distribution implies affect or ecology of distributed physical, social, psychological, spatial, and temporal elements. If situations-as-situs take place, then distributions imply a process of becoming that involves multiple intersecting actors, locations, and discourses: a place in-process.

Edbauer’s case study investigates how the “weirdness” of “Keep Austin Weird” is distributed through ecologies that expand beyond the traditional boundaries of the rhetorical situation (audience/ rhetor/ constraints). Counter-rhetorics move between individual situations, responding to, resisting, amending an “original” rhetoric. When we temporarily bracket the discrete elements of rhetor, audience, and exigence in the Keep Austin Weird movement, we attend to processes that both comprise and extend those rhetorics.