Musings on Lloyd F. Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation”


Last semester I worked as an assistant for a few undergraduate rhetoric classes here at SDSU, and a concept I saw the instructor constantly emphasis was the idea of “the rhetorical situation.” I observed the instructor’s constant reference to a paradigm of what he described as the author, the audience, and the topic. The instructor explained to his year freshmen rhetoric students that these came together to form the context of what influences an author attempts to persuade an intended audience of a specific topic, which is what describes as the characteristics of a rhetorical situation. While I never heard of the term before, I immediately understood the basic concept as taught to entering college freshmen. It made me recall when I was a student at the community college first beginning to learn how to do a critical analysis of texts, learning about how arguments are made within the contexts their intended authors made them. The rhetorical situation (as I originally understood it) is the context a rhetor finds him or herself in, and is called into action to communicate ideas intending to persuade at least one other person. In this week’s readings, Lloyd Bizter’s article “The Rhetorical Situation” (which can be accessed here) caught my attention because of how it reminded me of my experiences helping out that instructor’s RWS classes, making me realize that there may have been scholarship on this concept I previously missed. I wanted to come to better grips with understanding the term and how Bitzer’s project came help me understand the deeper nuances of what exactly describes a “rhetorical situation.”

In his essay, Bitzer argues that rhetorical theory has often focused on the methods of the orator (or the rhetor) or the discourse itself, but has mostly ignored questions about how a situation allows for the orator’s methods to have any applicability, or how discourse is created. He claims that while situation has been talked about indirectly, most rhetorical scholars, according to Bitzer, have often ignored questions about how situation provides exigency for rhetorical discourse to take place. Because of this, Bitzer attempts to explore these questions by providing outline of a theory of the rhetorical situation that takes into account of the circumstances that make discourse possible. He describes what makes certain events rhetorical by laying out the conditions necessary for discourse to come into existence.

Bitzer, on page 6, further 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, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence.” These necessary conditions for certain events (or situations) to be rhetorical appear to be another way of describing the three major constituents Bitzer argues make up the rhetorical situation, which are what he calls the exigence, the audience, an the constraints. Bitzer makes the point that “[p]rior to the creation and presentation of discourse, there are three constituents of any rhetorical situation: the first is the exigence; the second and third are elements of the complex, namely the audience to be constrained in decision and action, and the constraints which influence the rhetor and can be brought upon by the audience.” These three main constituents appear to make up the basic framework for what constitutes Bitzer’s theory of the rhetorical situation.

These terms, when I recall back to my time observing the way the instructor taught his rhetoric class, also appear to have evolved and simplified for an audience just beginning to learn the art of rhetoric in an academic environment. Bitzer’s terms describing the rhetorical situation appear to be much more theoretical and complex than I originally thought. It seems that according to Bitzer, there must be an exigence that calls discourse into being in order for a situation to be rhetorical. Going back to page 2, Bitzer provides different examples from history (The Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration Address, and so on) to showcase a major criterion for something to be a rhetorical situation. It appears that according to Bitzer, context must bring about a situation that influences discourse to occur, with the historic example of how Kennedy’s assassination influenced the rhetoric that would come into play. I observed this when Bitzer writes, “It is clear that situations are not always accompanied by discourse. Nor should we assume that a rhetorical address gives existence to the situation; on the contrary, it is the situation which calls the discourse into existence.” In reading this passage, it appears to me that Bitzer’s theory of the rhetorical situation attempts to provide a theory of rhetoric that accounts for how the exigence motivates a rhetor to create discourse, attempting to account for an aspect of rhetorical discourse many rhetoricians have mostly ignored.

This observation made sense to me when I examine in part III on page 9 the general characteristics Bitzer claims describe a rhetorical situation. A particular passage related to this observation that caught my attention was Bitzer’s description of the first general characteristic of the rhetorical situation when he writes:

Rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation; the situation which the rhetor perceives amounts to an invitation to create and present discourse. The clearest instances of rhetorical speaking and writing are strongly invited – often required. The situation generated by the assassination of President Kennedy was so highly structured that one could predict with near certainty the types and themes of forthcoming discourse.

Bitzer goes on further to explain how the historical context determined the exigence necessary for discourse to come into being. To further demonstrate this point, Bitzer relies heavily on the historical context of Kennedy’s assassination to showcase how the situation that was going on influenced the intentions of the rhetors engaging in the discourses that went on as a result of the Kennedy Assassination. Bitzer claims later on page 9 that: “One cannot say that the situation is the function of the speaker’s intentions, for in this case the speaker’s intentions were determined by the situation. One cannot say that the rhetorical transaction is simply a response to the speaker to the demands or the expectations of the audience, for the expectations of the audience were themselves keyed to a tragic historic event.” In other words, what Bitzer appears to be arguing is that the situation is what creates the discourse, rather than the discourse creating the situation.

When I recall back to my experience being an assistant here at SDSU, I originally believed that the concept of the rhetorical situation was pretty straightforward. Reading Bitzer’s article complicated my original understanding of the concept. The main idea I am trying to come to grips with in understanding the idea of the rhetorical situation (as described by Bitzer) is the idea of situations bringing discourse into existence. Bitzer’s theory claims that situations are what dictate the framework of the discourse. The rhetorical situation is not just simply the context which influences an author to persuade at least one other person, but a situation which calls discourse into existence as a result of an exigence. The simplified version of the concept of rhetorical situation learned by freshmen composition classes here at SDSU is useful in helping students in learning how to analyze arguments within the context of which they are made. Nevertheless, reading Bitzer’s article has made me realized that there are complexities to the concept of the rhetorical situation that I did not realize existed. The complexities about how discourse coming into being as a result of specific situations raise questions for me in regards to how this affects my understanding of rhetorical theory. In other words, if it is the case that situations are the primary cause of the creation of discourse (rather than understanding the means of persuasion as taught by Aristotle), then I am curious to learn about how historical contexts affect the way we engage in rhetorical criticism of rhetorical discourses, and how they affect our understanding of how arguments are used to persuade others given our evolving understanding of the field of rhetoric and writing studies.

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One Response to Musings on Lloyd F. Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation”

  1. Pingback: Rhetoric Wiki Draft – Site Title

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