The Rhetorical Situation Lloyd F.

Bitzer
If someone says, That is a dangerous situation, his words suggest the presence of events, persons, or objects which threaten him, Interesting someone else, or something of value. If someone remarks, I find way to myself in an emharrassing situation, again the statement implies think of certain situational characteristics. If someone remarks that he how found himself in an ethical situation, we understand that he probdifferent ably either contemplated or made some choice of action from a situations sense of duty or obligation or with a view to the Good. In other words, there are circumstances of this or that kind of structure are which are recognized as ethical, dangerous, or embarrassing. implied. What characteristics, then, are implied when one refers to "the rhetorical situation" — the context in which speakers or writers create rhetorical discourse? Perhaps this question is puzzling because "situation" is not a standard term in the vocabulary of rhetorical theory. "Audience" is standard; so also are "speaker," "subject," "occasion," and "speech." If I were to ask, "What is a rhetorical audience?" or "What is a rhetorical subject?" — the reader would catch the meaning of my question. When I ask. What is a rhetorical situation?, I want to know the nature of those contexts in which speakers or writers create rhetorical discourse: How should they be described? What are their characteristics? Why and how do they result in the creation of rhetoric? By analogy, a theorist of science might well ask, What are the characteristics of situations which inspire scientific thought? A philosopher might ask, What is the nature of the situation in which a philosopher "does philosophy"? And a theorist of poetrj' might ask. How shall we describe the eontext in which poetrj' comes into existence?
Lloyd F. Bitzer is Associate Professor of Speech, Univensity of Wisconsin, Madison. This paper was presented as a public lecture at Cornell Universitj' in November 1966 and at the University of Washington in April 1967. A short version was read at the April 1967 meeting of the Central States Speech Association.

Z

THE EHETOBICAL SETOAHON

The presence of rhetorical discourse obwously indicates the presence of a rhetorical situation. The Declaration of Independence, LiBColn's Gettysburg Address, Churchill's Address on Dunkirk, John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address — eaeh is a clear instance of rhetoric and each indicates the presence of a situation. While the existence of a rhetorical address is a reliable sign of the e.x:istence of situation, it does not follow that a situation exists only when the discourse exists. Each reader probably ean recall a specific time and place when there was opportunity to speak on some urgent matter, and after the opportunity was gone he created in private thought the speech he should ha%'e uttered earlier in the situation. 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 conti-ary, it is the situation which calls the discourse into existence. Clement Attlee once said that Winston Churchill went around looking for "finest hours." The point to observe Is that Churchill found them — the crisis situations — and spoke in response to them. No major theorist has treated rhetorical situation thoroughly as a distinct subject in rhetorical theory; many ignore it Those rhetoricians who discuss situation do so indirectly — as does Aristotle, for example, who is led to consider situation when he treats types of discourse. None, to my knowledge, has asked the nature of rhetorical situation. Instead rhetoricians have asked: What is the process by which the orator creates and presents discourse? What IS the nature of rhetorical discourse? What sorts of interaction occur between speaker, audience, subject, and occasion? Typically the questions which trigger theories of rhetoric focus upon the orator's method or upon the discourse itself, rather than upon the situation which invites the orator's application of his method and the creation of discourse. Thus rhetoricians distinguish among and characterize the types of speeches (forensic, deliberative, epideictic;) they treat issues, types of proof, lines of argument, strategies of ethical and emotional persuasion, the parts of a discourse and the functions of these parts, qualities of styles, figures of speech. They cover approximately the same materials, the formal aspects of rhetorical method and discourse, whether focusing upon method, product or process; while conceptions of situation are implicit in some theories of rhetoric, none explicitly treat the formal aspects of situation. I hope that enough has been said to show that the question — \¥hat is a rhetorical situation? — is not an idle one. I

LLOYD F. BITZER

3

in what follows to set forth part of a theory of situation. This essay, therefore, should be understood as an attempt to revive the notion of rhetorical situation, to provide at least the outline of an adequate conception of it, and to establish it as a controlling and fundamental concem of rhetorical theory.

I
It seems clear that rhetoiic. is situational. In saying this, I do not mean merely that understanding a speech hinges upon understanding the context of meaning in which the speech is located. Virtually no utterance is fully intelligible unless meaning-context and utterance are understood; this is true of rhetorical and non-rhetorical discourse. Meaning-context is a general condition of human communication and is not synonymous with rhetorical situation. Nor do I mean merely that rhetoric occurs in a setting which involves interaction of speaker, audience, subject, and communicative purpose. This is too general, since many types of utterances — philosophical, scientific, poetic, and rhetorical — occur in such settings. Nor would I equate rhetorical situation with persuasive situation, which exists whenever an audience can be changed in belief or action by means of speech. Every audience at any moment is capable of being changed in some way by speech; persuasive situation is altogether general. Finally, I do not mean that a rhetorical discourse must be embedded in historic context in the sense that a living tree must be rooted in soil. A tree does not obtain its character-astree from the soU, but rhetorical discourse, I shall argue, does obtain its character-as-rhetorical from the situation which generates it. Rhetorical works belong to the class of things which obtain their character from the circumstances of the historic context in which they occur. A rhetorical work is analogous to a moral action rather than to a tree. An act is moral because it is an act performed in a situation of a certain kind; similarly, a work is rhetorical because it is a response to a situation of a certain kind. In order to clarify rhetoric-as-essentiaUy-related-to-situation, we should aclmowledge a viewpoint that is commonplace but fundamental: a work of rhetoric is pragmatic; it comes into existence for the sake of something beyond itself; it functions

Very true statement Any situation can be swayed bt speech.

4

THE RHETORICAL SITUATION

ultimately to produce action or change in the world; it performs ' some task. J n . short, rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action. The rhetor alters reality by bringing into existence a discourse of such a character that the audience, in thought and action, is so engaged that it becomes mediator of change. In this sense rhetoric is always persuasive. To say that rhetorical discourse comes into being in order to effect change is altogether general. We need to understand that a particular discourse comes into existence because of some Not just specific condition or situation which invites utterance. Bronislaw Malinowski refers to just this sort of situation in his discussion general of primitive language, which he finds to be essentially pragmatic statements, must invoke and "embedded in situation." He describes a party of fishermen in the Trobriand Islands whose functional speech occurs other in a "context of situation."
discourses involvment.

The canoes glide slowly and noiselessly, punted by men especially good at this task and always used for it. Other experts who know the bottom of the lagoon . . . are on the look-out for fish. . . . Customary signs, or sounds or words are uttered. Sometimes a sentence full of technical references to tlie channels or patches on the lagoon has to be spoken; sometimes . . . a conventional cry is uttered. . . . Again, a word of command is passed here and there, a technical expression or explanation which serves to harmonize their behavior towards other men. . . . An animated scene, full of movement, follows, and now that the fish are in their power the fishermen speak loudly, and give vent to their feelings. Short, telling exclamations fly about, which might be rendered by such words as: "Pull in," "Let go," "Shift further," "Lift the net." In this whole scene, "each utterance is essentially bound up with the context of situation and with the aim of the pursuit. . . . The structure of all this linguistic material is inextricably mixed up with, and dependent upon, the course of the activity in which the utterances are embedded." Later the observer remarks: "In its primitive uses, language functions as a link in con. certed human aetivity, as a piece of human behaviour. It is a I mode of.,actioiL_aixd-^not an instrument of reflection." ^ These statements about primitive language and the "context of situation" provide for us a preliminary model of rhetorical

IXOYD F. BITZER

Since he's the leader he feels its necessary to help them catch fish according to the situation.

situation. Let us regard rhetorical situation as a natural con-|| text of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which|i 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 participation with situation obtains its meaning and its rhetorical character. In Malinowskfs example, the situation is the fishing expedition — consisting of objects, persons, events, and relations — and the ruling exigence, the success of the hunt. The situation dictates the sorts of observations to be made; it dictates the significant physical and verbal responses; and, we must admit, it constrains the woids whieh are uttered in the same sense that it constrains the physical acts of paddling the canoes and throwing the nets. The_verbal responses^ to_thje_demailds,_iinj3os_eji_j3\^ thi^^^^^ are clearly as functional and necessary as the physicial responses. Traditional theories of rhetoric have dealt, of course, not with the sorts of primitive utterances described by Malinowski — "stop here," "throw the nets," "move closer" — but witli_larger units of speech which come^rnore readilyjinder the guidance of artistic principle and method. The difference between oratory and primitive utterance, however, is not a difference in function; the clear instances of rhetorical discourse and the fishermen's utterances are similarly functional and similarly situational. Observing both the traditions of the expedition and the facts before!, him, the leader of_tli,t.|i|lieiinen finds himself obliged to speak at a given moment — to command, to supply information, to praise or blame — to respond appropriately to the situation. Clear in-, stances of artistic rhetoric exiiibit the same character: Cicero's'. speeches against Cataline were called forth by a specific union of persons, events, objects, and relations, and by an exigence which amounted to an imperative stimulus; the speeches ia the Senate rotunda three days after the assassination of the President of the United States were actually required by the situation. So controlling is situation that we should consider it the ver>' ground of rhetorical activit}', whether that activity is primitive and productive of a simple utterance or artistic and productive of the Gettysburg Address. Hence, to say that rhetoric is situational means: (1) rlietorical discourse comes into e^xistence as a response to sitiKition, in the same sense tliat an answer conies into existence in response to a question, or a solution in response to a problem; (2) a speech is given rJietorical significance by the situation, just as a unit of discourse is given significance as answer or as solution by the

6

THE HHETOKICAL SmJATION

miestion_o£_grobilem; (3) a rhetorical situation mus^_exist__as_ a necessary condition of rhetorical discourse, just as a jjuestion must exist as a. .necessary condition of an answer; (4) many questions go unanswered and many problems remain unsolved; similarly, many rhetorical_situations mature and decay nvitiieut gi\dng birth to rhetorical utterance; (5) a situation is rhetorical insofar as it needs and invites'Hiscourse capable of participating with situation and thereby altering its reality; (6) discourse is rhetorical insofar as it functions (or seeks to function) as a fitting response to a situation which needs and invites it. (7) Finally, the situation controls the rhetorical response in the same sense that the question controls the answer and the problem controls the solution. Not the rhetor and not persuasive intent, but the situation is the source and ground of rhetorical activity — and, I should add, of rhetorical criticism.

II
Let us now amplify the nature of situation by providing a formal definition and examining constituents. Rhetorical situation may be defined 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. Prior to the creation and j)reserita1ioji..,o£_d^ 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 to bear upon the audience. Any exigence is an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be. In almost any sort of context, there will be numerous exigences, but not all are elements of a rlietorical situation — not all are rhetorical exigences. An exigence which cannot be modified is not rhetorical; thus, whatever comes about of necessity and cannot be changed — death, winter, and some natural disasters, for instance — are exigences to be sure, but they are not rhetorical. Further, an exigence which can be

1) Extingencean imperfection, something waiting to be done, cannot be changed.

LLOYD F. BITZEE

7

modified only by means other than discourse is not rhetorical; thus, an exigence is not rhetorical when its modification requires merely one's own action or the application of a tool, but neither requires nor invites the assistance of discourse. An exigence is rhet0rij3aXjKhea.it is x;apable of positive modification ''ajiH"wIien"positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse. For example, suppose that a man's acts are injurious to others and that the quality of his acts can be changed only if discourse is addressed to him; the exigence — his injurious acts — is then unmistakably rhetorical. The pollution of our air is also a rhetorical exigence because its positive modification — reduction of pollution —^ strongly invites the as^ sistance of discourse producing public awareness, indignation, and action of the right kind. Frequently rhetors encounter exigences which defy easy classification because of the absence of information enabling precise analysis and certain judgment — they may or may not be rhetorical. An attorney whose client has been convicted may strongly believe that a higher court would reject his appeal to have the verdict overturned, but because the matter is uncertain — because the exigence might be rhetorical — he elects to appeal. In this and similar instances of indeterminate exigences the rhetor's decision to speak is based mainly upon the urgency of the exigence and the probability that the exigence is rhetorical. In any rhetorical situation there will be at least one controlling exigence which functions as the organizing principle: it specifies the audience to be addressed and the change to be efiiected. The exigence may or may not be perceived clearly by the rhetor or other persons in the situation; it may be strong or weak depending upon the clarity of their perception and tlie degree of their interest in it; it may be real or unreal depending on the facts of the case; it may be important or trivial; it may be such that discourse can completely remove it, or it may persist in spite of repeated modifications; it may be completely familiar — one of a type of exigences occurring frequently in 2) Audience- our experience — or it may be totally new, unique. When it Those is perceived and when it is strong and important, tlien it concapable of strains the thought and action of the perceiver who may respond rhetorically if he is an a position to do so. being The second constituent is the audience. Since rhetorical disinflenced by course produces change by influencing the decision and action that discourse of persons who function as mediators of change, it follows that rhetoric always requires an audience — even in those cases

8

THE RHETORIG4L SITUATION

when a person engages himself or ideal mind as audience. It is clear also that a rhetorical audience must be distinguished from, a body of mere hearers or readers: properly speaking, a rhetorical audience consists only of those persons who are capable of being influenced by discourse and of being mediators of change. Neither scientific nor poetic discourse requires an audience in the same sense. Indeed, neither requires an audience in order to produce its end; the scientist can produce a discourse expressive or generative of knowledge without engaging another mind, and the poet's creative purpose is accomplished when the work is composed. It is true, of course, that scientists and poets present their works to audiences, but their audiences are not necessarily rhetorical. The scientific audience consists of persons capable of receiving knowledge, and the poetic audience, of persons capable of participating in aesthetic experiences induced by the poetry. But the rhetorical audience must be capable of serving as mediator of the change which the discourse functions to produce. Besides exigence and audience, every rhetorical situation con5 tains a set of constraints made up of persons, events, objects, and relations which are parts of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence. Standard sources of constraint include beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives and the like; and when the orator enters the situation, his discourse not only harnesses constraints given by situation but provides additional important constraints — for example his personal character, his logical proofs, and his style. There are two main classes of contraints: (1) those originated or managed by the rhetor and Ms method (Aristotle called these "artistic proofs"), and (2) those other constraints, in the situation, which may be operative (Aristotle's "inartistic proofs"). Both, classes must be divided so as to separate those constraints that are proper from those that are improper. These three constituents — exigence, audience, constraints — comprise everything relevant in a rhetorical situation. When the orator, invited by situation, enters it and creates and presents discourse, then both he and his speech are additional constituents.

IXOYD F. BITZEH

9

III
I have broadly sketched a conception of rhetorical situation and discussed constituents. The following are general characteristics or features. 1. Rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation; the situation which the rlietor 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 and compelling that one could predict with near certainty the t\rpes and themes of forthcoming discourse. With the first reports of the assassination, there immediately developed a most urgent need for information; in response, reporters created hundreds of messages. Later as the situation altered, other exigences arose: the fantastic events in Dallas had to be explained; it was necessar

to eulogize the dead President; the public needed to be assured that tbe transfer of government to new hands would be orderly. These messages were not idle performances. The historic situation was so compelling and clear that the responses were created almost out of necessity. The responses — news reports, explanations, eulogies — participated with the situation and positively modified the several exigences. Surely the power of situation is evident when one can predict that such discourse will be uttered. How else explain the phenomenon? One cannot say that the situation is tlie function of the speaker's intention, for in this case the speakers' intentions were determined by the situation. One cannot say that the rhetorical transaction is simply a response of the speaker to the demands or expectations of an audience, for the expectations of the audience were themselves keyed to a tragic historic lact. Aiso, we must recognize that there came into existense countless eulogies to John F. Kennedy that never reached a public; they were filed, entered in diaries, or created in thought In contrast, imagine a person spending his time writing eulogies of men and women who never existed: his speeches meet no rhetorical situations; they are summoned into existence not by real events, but by his own Imagination. They may exhibit iormal features which we consider rhetorical — such as ethical and emotional appeals, and stylistic pattems; conceivably one of these fictive eulogies is even persuasive to someone; yet all remain unrhetorical unless, through the oddest of circumstances, one of them by chance should fit a situation. Neither the pres-

10

THE RHETORICAL SITUATION

ence of formal features in the discourse nor persuasive effect in a reader or hearer can be regarded as reliable marks of rhetorical discourse: A speech will be rhetorical when it is a response to the kind of situation which is rhetorical. Rhetorical 2. AlthouglLdi£torical..,.situatiQn,..ilixites.rjesponse,^AjQbYiously situations are does not invite just any response. Thus the second characteristic always of rhetorical situation is that it invites a fitting response, a reproceeded by sponse that fits the situation. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was a response a most fitting response to the relevant features of the historic fitting to the context which invited its existence and gave it rhetorical signisituation. ficance. Imagine for a moment the Gettysburg Address entirely separated from its situation and existing for us independent of any rhetorical context: as a discourse which does not "fit" any rhetorical situation, it becomes either poetry or declamation, without rhetorical significance. In reality, however, the address continues to have profound rhetorical value precisely because some features of the Gettysburg situation persist; and the Gettysburg Address continues to participate with situation and to alter it. Consider another instance. During one week of the 1964 presidential campaign, three events of national and international significance all but obscured the campaign: Krushchev was suddenly deposed, China exploded an atomic bomb, and in England the Conservative Party was defeated by Labour. Any student of rhetoric could have given odds that President Johnson, in a major address, would speak to the significance of these events, and he did; his response to the situation generated by the events was fitting. Suppose that the President had treated not these events and their significance but the national budget, or imagine that he had reminisced about his childhood on a Texas farm. The critic of rhetoric would have said rightly, "He missed the mark; his speech did not fit; he did not speak to the pressing issues — the rhetorical situation shaped by the three crucial events of the week demanded a response, and he failed to provide the proper one." 3. If it makes sense to say that situation invites a "fitting" response, then situation must somehow prescribe the response which fits. To say that a rlietorical response fits a situation is to say that it meets the requirements established by the situation. A situation which is strong and clear dictates the purpose, theme, matter, and style of the response. Normally, the inaiiguration of a President of the United States demands an address which speaks to the nation's purposes, the central national and inter-

IiOYD F. BITZER

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national problems, the unity of contesting parties; it demands speech style marked by dignity. What is evidenced on this occasion is the power of situation to constrain a fitting response. One might say metaphorically that eveiy situation prescribes its fitting response; the rhetor may or may not read the prescription accurately. 4. The exigence and the complex of persons, objects, events and relations which generate rhetorical discourse are located in reality, are objective and publicly observable historic facts in the world we experience, are therefore available for scrutiny by an observer or critic who attends to them. To say the situation is objective, publicly observable, and historic means that it is feaT or genuine — that our critical examination will certify its existence. Real situations are to be distinguished from sophistic ones in which, for example, a contrived exigence is asserted to be real; from spurious situations in which the existence or alleged existence of constituents is the result of error or ignorance; and from fantasy in which exigence, audience, and constraints may all be the imaginary objects of a mind at play. The rhetorical situation as real is to be distinguished also from afictiverhetorical situation. The speech of a character in a novel or play may be clearly required by afictive.rhetorical situation — a situation established by the story itself; but the speech is not genuinely rhetorical, even though, considered in itself, it looks exactly like a courtroom address or a senate speech. It is realistic, made so by fictive context. But the situation is not real, not grounded in history; neither thefictivesituation nor the discourse generated by it is rhetorical. We should note, however, that the fictive rhetorical discourse within a play or novel may become genuinely rhetorical outside fictive context — if there is a real situation for which the discourse is a rhetorical response. Also, of course, the play or novel itself may be understood as a rhetorical response having poetic form. 5. Rhetorical situations exhibit structures which are simple or complex, and more or less organized. A situation's structure is simple when tliere are relatively few elements which must be made to interact; thefishingexpedition is a case in point — there is a clear and easy relationship aniong utterances, the audiences, constraints, and exigence. Franklin D. Roosevelt's brief Declaration of War speech is another example: the message exists as a response to one clear exigence easily perceived by one major audience, and the one overpowering constraint is the necessity of war. On the otlier hand, the structure of a situation is complex

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THE RHETORICAL SITUATION

when many elements must be made to interact: practically any presidential political campaign provides numerous complex rhetorical situations. A situation, whether simple or complex, will be highly structured or loosely structured. It is highly structured when all of its elements are located and readied for the task to be performed. Malinowskfs example, the fishing expedition, is a situation which is relatively simple and highly structured; everything is ordered to the task to be performed. The usual courtroom case is a good example of situation which is complex and highly structured. The jury is not a random and scattered audience but a selected and concentrated one; it knows its relation to judge, law, defendant, counsels; it is instructed in what to observe and what to disregard. The judge is located and prepared; he knows exactly his relation to jury, law, counsels, defendant. The counsels know the ultimate object of their case; they know what they must prove; they know the audience and can easily reach it. This situation will be even more highly structured if the issue of the case is sharp, the evidence decisive, and the law clear. On the '• other hand, consider a complex but loosely structured situation, '^'^''illiam Lloyd Garrison preaching abolition from town to town. He is actually looking for an audience and for constraints; even when he finds an audience, he does not know that it is a genuinely rhetorical audience — one able to be mediator of change. Or consider the plight of many contemporary civil rights advoj/cates who, failing to locate compelling constraints and rhetorical I audiences, abandon rhetorical discourse in favor of physical I action. Situations may become weakened in structure due to complexity or disconnectedness. A list of causes includes these: (a) a single situation may involve numerous exigences; (b) exigences in the same situation may be incompatible; (c) two or more simultaneous rhetorical situations may compete for our attention, as in some parliamentary debates; (d) at a given moment, persons comprising the audience of situation A may also be the audience of situations B, C, and D; (a) the rhetorical audience may be scattered, uneducated regarding its duties and powers, or it may dissipate; (f) constraints may be limited in iium.ber and force, and they may be incompatible. This is enough to suggest the sorts of things which weaken the structure of situations. 6. Finally, rhetorical situations come into existence, then either mature or decay or mature and persist — conceivably some persist indefinitely. In any case, situations grow and come to

LLOYD F. BrrZEB

13

niaturity; they evolve to just the time when a z'hetorical discourse would be most fitting. In Malinowskfs example, there comes a time in the situation when the leader of the fisherman should say, "Throw the nets." In the situation generated by the assassination of the President, there was a time for giving descriptive accounts of the scene in Dallas, later a time for giving eulogies. In a political campaign, there is a time for generating an issue and a time for answering a charge. Every rhetorical situation in principle evolves to a propitious moment for the fitting rhetorical response. After this moment, most situations decay; we all have the experience of creating a rhetorical response when it is too late to make it public. Some situations, on the other hand, persist; this is why it is possible to have a body of truly rhetorical literature. The Gettysburg Address, Burke's Speech to the Electors of Bristol, Socrates' Apology — these are more than historical documents, more than specimens for stylistic or logical analysis. They exist as rhetorical responses for us precisely because they speak to situations which persist — which are in some measure universal. Due to either the nature of things or convention, or both, some situations recur. The courtroom is the locus for several kinds of situations generating the speech of accusation, the speech of defense, the charge to the jury. Fi'om day to day, year to year, comparable situations occur, prompting comparable responses; hence rhetorical forms are born and a special vocabulary, grammar, and style are established. This is true also of the situation which Invites the inaugural address of a President. The situation recurs and, because we experience situations and the rhetorical responses to them, a form of discourse is not only established but comes to have a power of its own — the tradition itself tends to function as a constraint upon any new response in the form.

IV In the best of all possible worlds, there would be communication perhaps, but no rhetoric — since exigences would not arise. Inl our real world, however, rhetorical exigences abound; the world I really invites change — change conceived and effected by human I agents who quite properly address a mediating audience. The practical justification of rhetoric is analogous to that of scientific inquiry: the world presents objects to be known, puzzles to be

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THE RHETORICAL SITUATION

resolved, complexities to be understood — hence the practical need for scientific inquiry and discourse; similarly, the world presents imperfections to be modified by means of discourse — hence the practical need for rhetorical investigation and discourse. As a discipline, scientific method is justified philosophically insofar as it provides principles, concepts, and procedures by which we come to know reality; similarly, 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.

NOTE
i"The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages," sections III and IV. This essay appears as a supplement in. Ogden and Richards' The Meaning of Meaning.

Related Interests

to eulogize the dead President; the public needed to be assured that tbe transfer of government to new hands would be orderly. These messages were not idle performances. The historic situation was so compelling and clear that the responses were created almost out of necessity. The responses — news reports, explanations, eulogies — participated with the situation and positively modified the several exigences. Surely the power of situation is evident when one can predict that such discourse will be uttered. How else explain the phenomenon? One cannot say that the situation is tlie function of the speaker's intention, for in this case the speakers' intentions were determined by the situation. One cannot say that the rhetorical transaction is simply a response of the speaker to the demands or expectations of an audience, for the expectations of the audience were themselves keyed to a tragic historic lact. Aiso, we must recognize that there came into existense countless eulogies to John F. Kennedy that never reached a public; they were filed, entered in diaries, or created in thought In contrast, imagine a person spending his time writing eulogies of men and women who never existed: his speeches meet no rhetorical situations; they are summoned into existence not by real events, but by his own Imagination. They may exhibit iormal features which we consider rhetorical — such as ethical and emotional appeals, and stylistic pattems; conceivably one of these fictive eulogies is even persuasive to someone; yet all remain unrhetorical unless, through the oddest of circumstances, one of them by chance should fit a situation. Neither the pres-

10

THE RHETORICAL SITUATION

ence of formal features in the discourse nor persuasive effect in a reader or hearer can be regarded as reliable marks of rhetorical discourse: A speech will be rhetorical when it is a response to the kind of situation which is rhetorical. Rhetorical 2. AlthouglLdi£torical..,.situatiQn,..ilixites.rjesponse,^AjQbYiously situations are does not invite just any response. Thus the second characteristic always of rhetorical situation is that it invites a fitting response, a reproceeded by sponse that fits the situation. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was a response a most fitting response to the relevant features of the historic fitting to the context which invited its existence and gave it rhetorical signisituation. ficance. Imagine for a moment the Gettysburg Address entirely separated from its situation and existing for us independent of any rhetorical context: as a discourse which does not "fit" any rhetorical situation, it becomes either poetry or declamation, without rhetorical significance. In reality, however, the address continues to have profound rhetorical value precisely because some features of the Gettysburg situation persist; and the Gettysburg Address continues to participate with situation and to alter it. Consider another instance. During one week of the 1964 presidential campaign, three events of national and international significance all but obscured the campaign: Krushchev was suddenly deposed, China exploded an atomic bomb, and in England the Conservative Party was defeated by Labour. Any student of rhetoric could have given odds that President Johnson, in a major address, would speak to the significance of these events, and he did; his response to the situation generated by the events was fitting. Suppose that the President had treated not these events and their significance but the national budget, or imagine that he had reminisced about his childhood on a Texas farm. The critic of rhetoric would have said rightly, "He missed the mark; his speech did not fit; he did not speak to the pressing issues — the rhetorical situation shaped by the three crucial events of the week demanded a response, and he failed to provide the proper one." 3. If it makes sense to say that situation invites a "fitting" response, then situation must somehow prescribe the response which fits. To say that a rlietorical response fits a situation is to say that it meets the requirements established by the situation. A situation which is strong and clear dictates the purpose, theme, matter, and style of the response. Normally, the inaiiguration of a President of the United States demands an address which speaks to the nation's purposes, the central national and inter-

IiOYD F. BITZER

11

national problems, the unity of contesting parties; it demands speech style marked by dignity. What is evidenced on this occasion is the power of situation to constrain a fitting response. One might say metaphorically that eveiy situation prescribes its fitting response; the rhetor may or may not read the prescription accurately. 4. The exigence and the complex of persons, objects, events and relations which generate rhetorical discourse are located in reality, are objective and publicly observable historic facts in the world we experience, are therefore available for scrutiny by an observer or critic who attends to them. To say the situation is objective, publicly observable, and historic means that it is feaT or genuine — that our critical examination will certify its existence. Real situations are to be distinguished from sophistic ones in which, for example, a contrived exigence is asserted to be real; from spurious situations in which the existence or alleged existence of constituents is the result of error or ignorance; and from fantasy in which exigence, audience, and constraints may all be the imaginary objects of a mind at play. The rhetorical situation as real is to be distinguished also from afictiverhetorical situation. The speech of a character in a novel or play may be clearly required by afictive.rhetorical situation — a situation established by the story itself; but the speech is not genuinely rhetorical, even though, considered in itself, it looks exactly like a courtroom address or a senate speech. It is realistic, made so by fictive context. But the situation is not real, not grounded in history; neither thefictivesituation nor the discourse generated by it is rhetorical. We should note, however, that the fictive rhetorical discourse within a play or novel may become genuinely rhetorical outside fictive context — if there is a real situation for which the discourse is a rhetorical response. Also, of course, the play or novel itself may be understood as a rhetorical response having poetic form. 5. Rhetorical situations exhibit structures which are simple or complex, and more or less organized. A situation's structure is simple when tliere are relatively few elements which must be made to interact; thefishingexpedition is a case in point — there is a clear and easy relationship aniong utterances, the audiences, constraints, and exigence. Franklin D. Roosevelt's brief Declaration of War speech is another example: the message exists as a response to one clear exigence easily perceived by one major audience, and the one overpowering constraint is the necessity of war. On the otlier hand, the structure of a situation is complex

12

THE RHETORICAL SITUATION

when many elements must be made to interact: practically any presidential political campaign provides numerous complex rhetorical situations. A situation, whether simple or complex, will be highly structured or loosely structured. It is highly structured when all of its elements are located and readied for the task to be performed. Malinowskfs example, the fishing expedition, is a situation which is relatively simple and highly structured; everything is ordered to the task to be performed. The usual courtroom case is a good example of situation which is complex and highly structured. The jury is not a random and scattered audience but a selected and concentrated one; it knows its relation to judge, law, defendant, counsels; it is instructed in what to observe and what to disregard. The judge is located and prepared; he knows exactly his relation to jury, law, counsels, defendant. The counsels know the ultimate object of their case; they know what they must prove; they know the audience and can easily reach it. This situation will be even more highly structured if the issue of the case is sharp, the evidence decisive, and the law clear. On the '• other hand, consider a complex but loosely structured situation, '^'^''illiam Lloyd Garrison preaching abolition from town to town. He is actually looking for an audience and for constraints; even when he finds an audience, he does not know that it is a genuinely rhetorical audience — one able to be mediator of change. Or consider the plight of many contemporary civil rights advoj/cates who, failing to locate compelling constraints and rhetorical I audiences, abandon rhetorical discourse in favor of physical I action. Situations may become weakened in structure due to complexity or disconnectedness. A list of causes includes these: (a) a single situation may involve numerous exigences; (b) exigences in the same situation may be incompatible; (c) two or more simultaneous rhetorical situations may compete for our attention, as in some parliamentary debates; (d) at a given moment, persons comprising the audience of situation A may also be the audience of situations B, C, and D; (a) the rhetorical audience may be scattered, uneducated regarding its duties and powers, or it may dissipate; (f) constraints may be limited in iium.ber and force, and they may be incompatible. This is enough to suggest the sorts of things which weaken the structure of situations. 6. Finally, rhetorical situations come into existence, then either mature or decay or mature and persist — conceivably some persist indefinitely. In any case, situations grow and come to

LLOYD F. BrrZEB

13

niaturity; they evolve to just the time when a z'hetorical discourse would be most fitting. In Malinowskfs example, there comes a time in the situation when the leader of the fisherman should say, "Throw the nets." In the situation generated by the assassination of the President, there was a time for giving descriptive accounts of the scene in Dallas, later a time for giving eulogies. In a political campaign, there is a time for generating an issue and a time for answering a charge. Every rhetorical situation in principle evolves to a propitious moment for the fitting rhetorical response. After this moment, most situations decay; we all have the experience of creating a rhetorical response when it is too late to make it public. Some situations, on the other hand, persist; this is why it is possible to have a body of truly rhetorical literature. The Gettysburg Address, Burke's Speech to the Electors of Bristol, Socrates' Apology — these are more than historical documents, more than specimens for stylistic or logical analysis. They exist as rhetorical responses for us precisely because they speak to situations which persist — which are in some measure universal. Due to either the nature of things or convention, or both, some situations recur. The courtroom is the locus for several kinds of situations generating the speech of accusation, the speech of defense, the charge to the jury. Fi'om day to day, year to year, comparable situations occur, prompting comparable responses; hence rhetorical forms are born and a special vocabulary, grammar, and style are established. This is true also of the situation which Invites the inaugural address of a President. The situation recurs and, because we experience situations and the rhetorical responses to them, a form of discourse is not only established but comes to have a power of its own — the tradition itself tends to function as a constraint upon any new response in the form.

IV In the best of all possible worlds, there would be communication perhaps, but no rhetoric — since exigences would not arise. Inl our real world, however, rhetorical exigences abound; the world I really invites change — change conceived and effected by human I agents who quite properly address a mediating audience. The practical justification of rhetoric is analogous to that of scientific inquiry: the world presents objects to be known, puzzles to be

14

THE RHETORICAL SITUATION

resolved, complexities to be understood — hence the practical need for scientific inquiry and discourse; similarly, the world presents imperfections to be modified by means of discourse — hence the practical need for rhetorical investigation and discourse. As a discipline, scientific method is justified philosophically insofar as it provides principles, concepts, and procedures by which we come to know reality; similarly, 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.

NOTE
i"The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages," sections III and IV. This essay appears as a supplement in. Ogden and Richards' The Meaning of Meaning.

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