Bitzer – The Rhetorical Situation

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader. Eds. Sally Caudill, Michelle Condit, and John Louis Lucaites. New York: Guilford Press, 1998. 217-225. Print.

In this foundational text, Lloyd Bitzer made the case that rhetorical stuation had not been adequately attended to by theorists, including Aristotle. Bitzer asserted that prior theorists have focused on the method of the orator to address the rhetorical situation, or ignored it completely. He then unfolded his theory of situation. He stated that this essay, originally given as a lecture at Cornell University in November 1966, should be understood as an attempt to 1) revive the notion of rhetorical situation, 2) provide an adequate conception of it, and 3) establish it “as a controlling and fundamental concern of rhetorical theory” (3). Bitzer concluded by drawing comparisons between the role of science in an imperfect world and the need for rhetoric in an imperfect world. He provided the exigence for his own theorization and argument regarding rhetorical situation and argued for the importance  and relevance of rhetoric as a discipline beyond the understanding that it is merely the art of persuasion, which he asserted was necessary to warrant justification as a practical discipline:

…rhetoric as a discipline is justified philosophically insofar as it provides principles, concepts, and procedures by which we effect valuable changes in reality. Thus rhetoric is distinguished from the mere craft of persuasion which, although it is a legitimate object of scientific investigation, lacks philosophical warrant as a practical discipline. (14)

Bitzer distingushes rhetorical situation from context:

Let us regard rhetorical situation as a natural context of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance; this invited utterance participates naturally in the situation, is in many instances necessary to the completion of situational activity, and by means of its participa-tion with situation obtains its meaning and its rhetorical character. (5)

Bitzer contended that rhetorical situation should be given priority because of the strong role of plays in a wide range of rhetorical discourse:

So controlling is situation that we should consider it the very’ ground of rhetorical activity’, whether that activity is primitive and productive of a simple utterance or artistic and productive of the Gettysburg Address. (5)

Prior to the creation and presentation of discourse, Bitzer said there are three constituents of rhetorical situation: exigence (an imperfection marked by urgency, an obstacle, something waiting to be done); audience (persons capable of being influenced – even one’s self); and constraints.

Bitzer also outlined six features of rhetorical situations:

  1. Are called into existence by a situation/ invitation (9)
  2. Invite a response that fits the situation (10)
  3. Dictate the purpose, theme, matter, and style of the response.
  4. Are derived from “real” situations and exigencies, not “sophistic” ones (11)
  5. Exhibit structures which are simple or complex, and more or less organized (11)
  6. Come into existence, then either “mature or decay or mature and persist — conceivably some persist indefinitely” (12)
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