Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bitzer's rhetorical situation

Aristotle famously argues that rhetoric is about using the available means of persuasion in any given situation. In other words, situation shapes both the form and substance of a speech or conversation more than any other factor. Lloyd Bitzer writing on rhetoric more than 2,000 years after Aristotle (in 1968) finally took that Aristotelian insight and broke new ground with it. In his article entitled, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Bitzer finally asks and attempts to answer one of the key issues in rhetoric, what makes a situation rhetorical. The new ground Bitzer breaks is not found in his identification of the significance of situation to rhetoric, it is rather in his definition and description of a rhetorical situation.

Maybe just a word about the significance of the concept of the rhetorical situation is in order before unfolding Bitzer’s definition and explanation of it. Rhetoric is always situational as Bitzer points out. Rhetorical address doesn’t call a situation into existence, the situation calls rhetoric into existence. The situation is not rhetorical in the sense that, “a speech hinges upon understanding the context of meaning in which the speech is located.” Neither is the situation rhetorical in the sense that a speech can only be understood contextually either in terms of the speech itself or the historical context of the speech, nor is it the persuasive situation which “exists whenever an audience can be changed in belief or action by means of a speech.” (3). A situation is rhetorical when some specific situational circumstance calls rhetoric into being. A situation calls rhetoric into action to move the audience to do something.

Now with that backdrop in mind, let’s get to Bitzer’s rhetorical model. First of all Bitzer defines a rhetorical situation as “a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse can so constrain human decision or action as to bring the significant modification of the exigence.” (6). That definition is a mouthful, but contains 3 key terms which form the essence of the rhetorical situation.

First, every rhetorical situation has some exigence. An exigence is some imperfection, some problem that needs to be addressed and resolved by rhetoric. Bitzer argues that if rhetoric cannot resolve the exigence, then the situation is not rhetorical (that is debatable, but I wont deal with that). The rhetorical situation consists of a problem and moves a speaker to call for action from a particular audience.

Second, every rhetorical situation has an audience. This is not surprising given the fact that for Bitzer the rhetorical situation always includes a problem that an audience can fix if they are moved to do so by a speaker. The audience is the mediator of change. They are people of sound mind and reasoning faculties who will be able to respond to the words of the speaker as he identifies the problem and the steps to be taken in order to fix it.

Third, every rhetorical situation consists of constraints. Constraints are persons, events objects, attitudes, or beliefs, which are “parts of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence.”(8) When you think about constraints, you need to look for things in the situation and you need to think as broadly as possible. For example, in Obama’s recent health care address to congress, he used constraints to persuade the auditors to change. We will skip over the fact that he was speaking to different audiences and focus on the one in the congressional chamber when he gave the speech. The constraints in that situation ranged from the fiscal implications of not fixing health care and how that might effect future budget deficits, to the recent death of Teddy Kennedy who wrote a letter to Obama expressing his passion for seeing health care legislation passed, and to the anecdotal stories of ordinary Americans who cannot receive the health care they need either because of cost or because of insurance company bureaucrats who call the shots on health care decisions instead of doctors. The list could go on and on, but you get the point, these are things within the context which constrain the audience to accept the claim which identifies the need and the solution which outlines the steps to take in order to remedy the problem.

That is Bitzer’s rhetorical situation in a nutshell. His main point is, the situation controls rhetoric and not the other way around. Obviously it does not capture everything and is open to various criticisms, but if you catch hold of the main idea, you will see that it is a valid insight into how situation affects rhetoric. Speech is effective only when a specific situation calls for it and subsequently when the speech uses the constraints of a specific situation to call forth concrete action from the audience who are the agents of change.

So next time you hear a speech from Obama or some other politician, stop and ask yourself one question: what situation called this speech into action. To identify that rhetorical situation ask, what is the problem that called the speech into being, who is the intended audience, and what are the constraints of the situation which are used to compel the audience to action. If you do that, you will be able to filter out all the talking points provided by the pundits and talking heads, and arrive at substantive conclusions about the speech all on your own.

1 comment:

Wait Less Cayc said...

This was incredibly helpful in deciphering the 14-page paper into meaning for me. For some reason I just kept reading Bitzer over and over and getting either so bored or distracted or lost that I had to fumble around online for something just like this. Thank you~