Brave New World (2): The Rhetorical Situation

The emergence of a communicative need creates a more or less intense urgency to communicate, called a rhetorical situation. This situation calls for resolution by communication. If intense, pervasive, and universal enough a resolution is likely to be found or constructed. Reversely, if a medium or technology appears to be the resolution for a existent rhetorical situation it will be readily adopted and sustained.

Many of the new Web 2.0 communication technologies, highly interactive, participatory, adaptable, customizable, and often very easy to use can be seen as providing a resolution to communicative needs, possibly dormant up to the point of the introduction of the resolution.

The rhetorical situation has been defined by Lloyd Bitzer (1968), cited in my review by Torning (2008), as having three ingredients: 1. Exigence, which he describes as an “imperfection marked by urgency”; 2. Audience, which consists of “only those people who can be persuaded and have the ability to act, i.e. affect change”; 3. Constraints, which can be “persons, events, objects, and relations that are parts of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence”. (Bitzer, 1968) The ‘fitting response’ is the communication that resolves the exigence.

Bitzer asserts that a situation is only rhetorical if communication can resolve it by persuading an audience “to act in a way that removes the imperfection.” It follows that the discourse is organized around the exigence which is a call to action to all of the members of the audience.
Reinsch and Turner (2006), referencing the rhetorical situation as defined by Bitzer (p. 347), contend that the new communication technologies demand new ways of thinking about rhetoric and, equally as important, constant adaptation by the user, especially in light of challenges, such as immense access to and inundation with data. They conclude that “in this time of change, the fundamental insights of a rhetorical perspective are especially relevant” and “the communicator must continually assess the available means of persuasion”. (p. 353)

Using a blog as the publishing medium for their article, Carolyn Miller and Dawn Sheperd (2004) examine the rhetorical situation of the blog. The authors describe the blog as a “new rhetorical opportunity, made possible by technology that is becoming more available and easier to use.” Acknowledging the blog’s quick and pervasive adoption the authors assert that it must be serving well established rhetorical needs. Miller and Sheperd chose genre analysis to answer the fundamental question of what rhetorical work blogs perform. While exploring the ancestral genres for rhetorical predecessors and patterns of the blog, they also examine the rhetorical situation with its particular exigence that allowed for the sustainability of the blog as a genre, using an interpretive-rhetorical approach. Genre, according to the authors and other sources cited, can be interpreted as “rooted in social practices”, ‘genres change, evolve, and decay’” (Miller, 1984) It can be studied better from a Darwinian perspective than from a Platonic one. Building on the Darwinian thought of evolution, Miller and Sheperd cite Bitzer (1968) and in following his theory of the rhetorical situation, focus on the ‘fitting response’ to the situation or kairos, the “socially perceived space-time” of the blog.

“Kairos describes both―the sense in which discourse is understood as fitting and timely, the way it observes propriety or decorum―and the way in which it can seize on the unique opportunity of a fleeting moment to create new rhetorical possibility.” (Miller, 2002)

In accordance with Welch (1999, Electric Rhetoric), Miller and Sheperd describe the current time to be one of social change with rhetorical emphasis on the destabilization of the public and the private creating new rhetorical situations. Miller and Sheperd call for new ways of examining the exigence that is created by the availability of more and more personal information on the web which in turn creates a perceived need to access information in return. (Calvert, 2000)
In agreement with Miller and Sheperd, Lowe and Williams (2004) open their article, entitled ‘Moving to the Public: Weblogs in the Writing Classroom’, by referencing Weinberger (2002):
“The web teaches us that we can be part of the largest public ever assembled and still maintain our individual faces. But this requires living more of our life in public. On the Web, the notion of a diary has been turned inside out: weblogs are public diaries. It is likely that the neat line we draw between our public and private selves in the real world will continue to erode, grain by grain.”
To explain the perseverance of the blog since the mid 1990s, Miller and Sheperd explore the concepts of voyeurism and exhibitionism as documented in history. While in the past clearly associated with sexual gratification, mediated voyeurism, in the context of the Internet, can often be used synonymously with access to information and, in the case of mediated exhibitionism, with voluntarily providing information as it is done in many blogs. The pursuit of truth, the desire for excitement, the need for involvement and shared experience (Calvert as cited in Miller and Sheperd, 2004) form the basic forces underlying voyeurism, which clearly can be labeled as a rhetorical situation that demands communicative resolution. The same goes for exhibitionism, self-disclosure for the purpose of self-clarification, social validation, relationship development, and social control performing intrinsic and extrinsic social psychological functions for the individual. (Calvert)

In the age of the Internet with the help of technology, both terms voyeurism and exhibitionism have been neutralized according to the authors. Important for the understanding of the kairos of the blog is, that it “shifted the boundary between the public and the private and the relationship between mediated and unmediated experience”. Calvert notes that validation of experience increasingly is achieved through mediation via a technology.

The accessibility of the Internet and the technology of the blog afford this by their very nature. Baudrillard (1981) contends that the perception of “the real and the simulated have reversed: that rather than representing the real, the simulation constitutes the real”. By extrapolation, the rhetorical situation, real or simulated, can be resolved by a fitting response, real or simulated.

Manovich, in 2008, observes that the major shift in Internet usage that has occurred between the early 1990s and today, 2008, is a shift away from being mostly a publishing medium towards becoming a communication medium. (p.2) If communication is happening in a sustained way, then it must be resolving an existing rhetorical situation. The communicative interaction happens in the form of “posts, comments, reviews, ratings, gestures and tokens, votes, links, badges, photos, and video”. Manovich points out that to date only a very small number of users actually contribute content and most remain consumers but the conversation has begun to shift, as confirmed by the staggering usage statistics of online social media. See for statistics used by Manovich.

In exploring the psychological and rhetorical underpinnings of the rhetorical situation and its exigence with respect to the blog, Miller and Sheperd (2004) contend that “[t]he blogger is her own audience, her own public, her own beneficiary” and situate the blog as fulfilling a timeless rhetorical exigence that fits our current time. The authors examine the blog as a social phenomenon that involves the contributor and reader as private individuals.

With the emergence of social media in organizations it would be interesting to further examine the development of the blog genre when injected into the workplace where different exigences might be at play. Torning (2008) examines the rhetorical situation present in an organization with respect to a knowledge management system (KMS). Such a system must rely on the employee, the knowledge worker (KW), to provide content into the system to be useful for the KW and the organization. In his study, Torning examines the factors that contribute to the sharing of knowledge by the KWs. He examines this by exploring the rhetorical situation surrounding the creation of a KMS in order to determine motivating factors for KWs to share knowledge. He found that two rhetorical situations emerged with distinct exigences, one for the organization and one for the KW. The organization’s exigence surrounds the sharing of knowledge by employees in a sustainable way to ensure growth and profitability. Important for this review is the fact that if communication does not resolve a rhetorical exigence, its sustainability is doubtful.

Torning turns to Web 2.0 technologies and suggests that the identified rhetorical situations outlined above could benefit from incorporating certain Web 2.0 technologies into the new KMS to frame a ‘fitting response’. Having examined several social networking sites and what makes them sustainable, Torning suggests to employ the those same technologies in the KMS of an organization because they would offer that ‘fitting response’ to KW’s exigence of self-representation and it would allow for natural knowledge sharing as it can be observed in the social networking sites.

For more thoughts on this topic see my post on “Synergies among methodology proposals”


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