Biesecker – Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of Differance

Biesecker, Barbara A. “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of Differance.” Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader. Eds. Sally Caudill, Michelle Condit, and John Louis Lucaites. New York: Guilford Press, 1998. 232-246. Print.

In this essay Barbara Biesecker challenged rhetoric theorists and critics to further destabilize Lloyd Bitzer’s theory of rhetorical situation. While Richard Vatz inverted Bitzer’s hierarchy between the event and rhetor, but Biesecker questioned the potential for not “simply choosing sides” but using Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction and différance to upset the hierarchy altogether. Biesecker pointed out that deconstruction hadn’t been productively appropriated by critics working in Rhetoric. She, therefore, sought in her essay to do a reading of the rhetorical situation from within the frame of deconstructive practice in order to the possibilities  for useful analysis of rhetorical events. One example of the limitations of prior considerations of rhetorical consideration she gave is that rhetoric was seen as only having the power to influence, but not to form new identities (111).

After taking up taking up text as a constituent element of the rhetorical situation and fleshing out how Derrida’s différance as demonstrated in his essay “Glas” could be used to better understand how meaning can be made in rhetorical discourse, she then focused on “audience” as a constituent element of the rhetorical situation.

“It is in the middle or the suspense of the two previously unjoined texts that meaning can be said to have been made. In fact we might go so far as to suggest that the blithe proposition in Glas is: everything deliberately and unavoidably happens in its crease, in its fold. It is in the structural space between the Hegel column and the Genet column that Derrida’s text would play out its ‘meanings’.”

Biesecker’s application of différance can be understood in comparison to Bitzer and Vatz’s understanding of where meaning is situated in the rhetorical situation. For Bitzer, meaning is intrisic to the event and for Vatz meaning is derived from the creative act of the rhetor. Using Derrida, Biesecker argued that meaning is found in “the fold” or the differencing zone (119): “Derridean deconstruction begins by considering thè way in which all texts are inhabited by an internally divided non-originary ‘origin’ called différance” (120).

Biesecker asserted that use of this framework would lead to a deconstructive displacement of questions of origin to questions of process. In turn, this would free rhetoric theorists and critics from reading rhetoric discourses and their ‘founding principles’ (either seen as “the event” by Bitzer or the “rhetor” by Vatz ) as either the determined outcome of an objectively identifiable and discrete situation (Bitzer) or an interpreting and intending subject (Vatz) (121). “That is to say,” Bieseckers wrote, “neither the text’s immediate rhetorical situation nor its author can be taken as simple origin or generative agent since both are underwritten by a séries of historically produced displacements” (121).

This framework also challenged rhetoric’s understanding/ treatment of the subject and audience.  Biesecker argued that most scholarship, including Bitzer’s on the rhetorical situation included “audience” as a constituent element; however it is simply “named” it and not complicated it. According to Biesecker, the “subject” or “audience” had been discussed as a stable, rational, human being.

But once deconstructed, Biesecker explained that the identity of the subject then was/ is not stable, but deffered. It is deffered by “… virtue of the very principle of différence which holds that an element functions and signifies, takes on or conveys meaning, only by referring to another past or future element in an economy of traces” (125).

Biesecker presented implications for both the rhetorical situation and rhetoric as a field based on this treatment of “audience.”

For the rhetorical situation:

“From within the thematic of différance we would see the rhetorical situation neither as an event that merely induces audiences to act one way or another nor as an incident that, in representing the interests of a particular collectivity, merely wrestles the probable within the realm of the actualizable. Rather, we would see the rhetorical situation as an event that makes possible the production of identities and social relations. That is to say, if rhetorical events are analysed from within the  thematic of différance, it becomes possible to read discursive practices neither as rhetorics directed to preconstituted and known audiences nor as rhetorics “in search of” objectively identifiable  but yet undiscovered audiences.” (126)

For the field of Rhetoric:

“Simply put, the deconstruction of the subject opens up possibilities for the field of Rhetoric by enabling us to read the rhetorical situation as an event structured not by a logic of influence but by a logic of articulation. If the subject is shifting and unstable (constituted in and by the play of différance), then the rhetorical event may be seen as an incident that produces and reproduces the identities of subjects and constructs and reconstructs linkages between them.” (126)

Biesecker argued that the radical potential in this approach to work against essentializing and universalizing claims presented “one possible way to reivigorate the field, not as the first step towards renunciation of it” (127). Biesecker advocated not using deconstruction as a means to get to a singular “truth”, as Bitzer positioned his theory to do, but as a tool to produce more possibilites of rhetoric.


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