Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation”

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1.1 (Jan. 1968): 1-14. (14 pages)

The question of the rhetorical situation is a question concerning “the nature of those contexts in which speakers or writers create discourse” (1). In this sense, Bitzer seeks to create a model of discourse—he offers the metaphor of the situation in order to discuss the constitutive features that create change in reality through discourse. Rhetorical situation, as he describes it, consists of “a natural context of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance” (5). Key to the rhetorical situation is a particular understanding of rhetoric, defined as follows:

“Rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action. The rhetor alters reality by bringing into existence a discourse of such a character that the audience, in through and action, is so engaged that it becomes mediator of change” (4). Put simply, the aspects of the rhetorical situation speak to the ways change—in the form of altering reality—happen through discourse.

The rhetorical situation is comprised of three constituents:

Exigence: “imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be” (6). Bitzer distinguishes exigence from rhetorical exigence: a rhetorical exigence is that which can be (1) modified and (2) modified through discourse. Exigence also specifies “the audience to be addressed and the change to be effected” (7).

Audience: Like exigence, Bitzer distinguishes between audience and rhetorical audience. A rhetorical audience is distinct from “a body of mere hearers or readers”; rather, “rhetorical audience consists only of those persons who are capable of being influenced by discourse” (8).

Constraints: “made up of persons, events, objects, and relations which are parts of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence” (8). In other words, these are aspects that shape the discourse. He classifies them in two ways: the intentions of the rhetor and the expectations of the situation (audience, exigence, materials, etc).

He offers a few other points implicit within the rhetorical situation. For example, exigencies exist naturally in situations: “Rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation; the situation which the rhetor perceives amounts to an invitation to create and present discourse” (9). In other words, people don’t create exigence, they must be called upon by the rhetor. In this way, rhetorical situations invite a fitting response, “a response that fits the situation” (10). The exigence, as mentioned before, becomes a guiding principle that defines who should be addressed and what the action should be to modify the exigence, and—in this way—the kind of discourse it invites.




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