Consigny, “Rhetoric and its Situations”

Consigny, Scott. “Rhetoric and Its Situations.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 7.3 (Summer 1974): 175-186. (12 pages)

Taking Vatz’s lead, Consigny also outlines similar concerns about Bitzer’s construction of the rhetorical situation and the relationship among its parts; however, Consigny goes further to challenge Vatz’s concept by tempering the responsibility of the rhetor. In other words, where Bitzer sees the onus of responsibility lying with objective, observable reality within the situation, and Vatz sees the onus of responsibility lying with the rhetor’s discourse, Consigny argues that ‘the rhetor cannot create exigencies arbitrarily, but must take into account the particularities of each situation in which he actively engaged” (176). Returning the Presidents, Consigny writes that the President does not determine what he will say; but “has the responsibility to discover and formulate what the nation’s purposes and central problems are” (178).

He succinctly encapsulates his argument thus, “the rhetorical situation is an indeterminate context marked by troublesome disorder which the rhetor must structure so as to disclose and formulate problems…the rhetor cannot ignore these constraints if he is to function effectively” (179). In other words, rhetors must contend with the constraints (both discursive and material) that the situation holds, but has opportunity to create a structure for discourse that is creative or inventive. In this way, Consigny sees rhetoric as an art that works both heuristically (“allowing the rhetor to discover real issues in indeterminate situations” 180) and managerially (“providing the rhetor with means for controlling real situations and bringing them to a successful resolution or closure” 180). He notes the art must meet two conditions:

  1. Integrity: the rhetor is afford “a repertoire of options and freedom to select ways making sense anew in each case, disclosing problems an finding means of attaining their solutions” (180-1); in other words, the rhetor has some degree of freedom in inventing discourse. As he later discusses, he sees the idea of “topics” as an integral aspect of a rhetor’s “instrument for discovery or invention” (182).
  2. Receptivity: “the rhetor must be constrained in that he can function in novel but real situations, being true to the particularities of each….the rhetor must remain receptive to the particularities of the individual situation in a way that he can discourse relevant issues” (181).

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