What is the rhetorical situation? Does rhetoric bring about the situation or does the situation bring about rhetoric? In the “Rhetorical Situation” Bitzer underlines and explains the key elements that make situations rhetorical.
According to Bitzer, the rhetorical situation can 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 signification modification of the exigence.”
There are three parts or “constituents” to Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation. They include 1) the exigence, 2) the audience, and 3) the constraints. Throughout the course of this blog, each part of the rhetorical situation will be explained, hopefully leading to a better understanding of what the rhetorical situation is.
According to Bitzer, exigence is an “imperfection marked by urgency.” It is a situation that requires modification which can only be mediated through discourse. Bitzer says that it is the exigence or the situation that brings rhetoric into existence, not the other way around.
For example, one exigence could be that I am hungry and want something to eat but I am too lazy to make dinner for myself. This problem could be solved by asking a friend to bring me something to eat.
Because a rhetorical exigence must be able to be modified solely through the use of rhetoric, it follows that a rhetor presenting an exigence must always have an audience. His audience consists only of the people who are capable of being influenced by discourse and being mediators of change.
In my case, my audience consists of my friends who live with me because they are able to respond to my request for food.
The third element of Bitzer’s rhetorical situation is constraints. The constraints are made up of persons, events, objects and relations and they have the power to limit the decision and action needed to modify the exigence.
Constraints in this situation, could include the availability of food, my use or lack of tact when requesting that my friend make dinner, and also my friend’s willingness to cook something.
Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL created controversy when news, that he and several members of his congregation were going to lead and participate in a Koran burning on the evening of Sept. 11th, reached the world. .
Let’s analyze this situation through the eyes of Bitzer. Jones’ exigence is the want to send a message that reveals the dangers of the religion of Islam. Jones admits that the burning of Korans is a radical way to send such a message but believes it is necessary to get the job done.
His audience, the entire world. His constraints, well maybe he forgot about those. However, they would have included the risk he was placing American soldiers at by burning the Holy Book of Islam that is never to be destroyed, which would understandably infuriate Muslims all of the world, not the least of which in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. He was asked by the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the local Gainesville law enforcement not to go through with the burning. Thankfully, though he initially denied all requests and was determined to go through with it, he eventually relented and the burning did not take place.
This controversy has stirred up a lot of rhetorical discourse and it is interesting to see how one radical voice can impact an entire country. The extreme actions of Terry Jones caused many Americans concern as to how his actions would portray Americans as a whole, and fear that this radicalism would paint America as an intolerable and hateful country. Rhetoric is powerful. It can shape our own views as well as the views of others. How we wield this power is up to us.