The Rhetorical Situation by Lloyd F. Bitzer

Bitzer, Lloyd F.  “The Rhetorical Situation.” Cornell University, New York. Nov. 1966. Lecture.

Summary:   Bitzer lectures on what a rhetorical situation is, in his mind.  He looks for answers to the questions of what contexts, speakers, and writers are involved in the formation of a rhetorical situation.  The main criteria that determine that a rhetorical situation has occurred or is occurring: the presence of rhetorical discourse.  Bitzer uses classical examples to highlight clear instances of rhetoric, such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Socrates’ Apology, or John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.  Bitzer emphasizes that it is not the rhetoric that makes the discourse, but the situation that causes the discourse.  He is answering the question; what is the nature of the rhetorical situation?  Bitzer goes on to describe what rhetoricians have done, and how what he is doing differs from what has come before.  First, he points out that rhetorical discourse gets its “character-as-rhetorical” from the situation in which the discourse arises.  So, something can be labeled as rhetorical when it is a response to a specific type of situation.  Bitzer also emphasizes the point that rhetoric comes about in order to perform a function, and not just for its own sake; it is performing a task in the world; it is a “mode of altering reality”.  Secondly, he provides a formal definition.  Bitzer lays out three necessary elements of the rhetorical situation: the exigence, the audience, and the constraints.  Thirdly, Bitzer expounds on the three elements of the rhetorical situation.  “Rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation.  It invites a fitting response.  Situation must prescribe the response which fits.  The situation is objective, publicly observable, and historic.  Rhetorical situations exhibit structures which are simple or complex, and more or less organized.  Rhetorical situations come into existence; they they either mature, decay, or persist indefinitely.”  Lastly, Bitzer provides the justification for the the rhetorical situation; that the world is full of problems that need to be solved, objects that require examination, mysteries that need explanation, and general imperfections that benefit from rhetorical discourse.

Discussion:   Bitzer uses Malinowski’s example of the fishing expedition to show how the situation determines what sort of observations are made at the same time it constrains what is said and done. This example readily exemplifies how the situation is a determining factor.  A fisherman must use the lingo and make specific demands, to respond, in short: all of which is contingent on what is physically going on around the fisherman.  The rhetorical discourse is, so to speak, the last thing that happens.  The stage is already set, the situation is occurring.  The situation’s requirements cause the speeches to be significant.  Of course, if the situation exists, then the discourse can happen.  However, rhetorical situations can occur without there being any rhetorical discourse.  The situation, to be rhetorical, has to be capable of producing discourse that will assist with resolving issues, and thereby altering realities.  Discourse also must function as a fitting response if the situation demands it.  The situation is the controlling factor.  All the rhetoric comes from the situation itself; how to respond, who responds, what the response should be, why a response is required.  The situation also has an infinite number of elements.  Not only are there the constraints on the rhetor, there are constraints on the situation itself, and the audience as well.

      In response to the above concept, I find that this lecture is somewhat repetitive, and while I appreciate the examples given, a few more embedded within the work for each point would be welcome.  This strikes me as a concept that is begging for examples and some “hands-on” explanations.  The vocabulary is so repetitive, and the concepts so specific and overlapping, that more concrete examples (as opposed to just throwing Socrates’ Apology out there-no matter how well known), would be extremely helpful with the concepts.  I, for one, would like to see how a rhetorical situation might arise out of a not-so-rhetorical situation, or out of one that is definitely not rhetorical at all.  Some of this is covered by the lengthy explanations of the constituents, but the constraints bring up even more questions as to the changing nature of the rhetorical situation.  As mentioned above, and in Edbauer’s article, there are more elements to the rhetorical situation than are necessarily accounted for in Bitzer’s speech.  The language of discourse and how the rhetor disseminates the information are important points in relation to the particular audience.

Questions:  Are there constraints upon the rhetor that negate it being a rhetorical situation, as they so constrict the actions of the rhetor that he/she is unable to effect any change in reality and therefore cannot resolve the exigence at all?  Or are those constraints then just a portion of the exigence, another aspect requiring resolution?  I guess this relates to the criticism mentioned in Edbauer’s article, that Bitzer ignores the plurality of exigencies that can and do exist.

What, exactly, is Malinowski’s example of the fishing expedition?  What is the main point of Cicero’s orations? There are no references for these works, and I am unfamiliar with these two examples.  I get it enough that the concepts are conveyed, but being able to consult the originals would be helpful.  As detailed as the explanation is, I would like more specific and documented references.

The example of “a person spending his time writing eulogies of men and women who never existed” seems so fantastic as to prove unhelpful–this situation almost certainly doesn’t exist…wouldn’t it be more useful to talk about a person who writes obituaries for people they don’t know, as that is actually a situation that occurs?

Keywords or phrases:




“A rhetorical work is analogous to a moral action rather than to a tree.”

“It is a mode of action and not an instrument of reflection.”

Related reading:

Plato. “Socrates’ Apology.” http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html. Web.

Cicero. “The Catiline plot and the orations of Cicero.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catiline_Orations.  Web.


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