Original iPad

The iPad Question: Where Do Rhetorical Situations Come From?

Steve Jobs with Apple's iPad. Photo by Flickr user Matt Buchanan.No one needed an iPad before they needed one. Or did they need it and just not know? Is there a difference? Asked differently, did Steve Jobs fill a need or create one?

The answer isn’t simple, and how you think about the issue can reveal a lot about your view of knowledge, persuasion, and even reality. We’re gettin’ deep!

In the field of rhetoric, the iPad question looks more like this: How do rhetorical situations happen? Do we create rhetorical situations or do they exist in the world waiting to be found?

To refresh, a rhetorical situation (as defined by Lloyd Bitzer) is:

“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.”

Whoa. What does that mean in English?

A rhetorical situation is a context in which a successful argument can occur. The important parts of a rhetorical situation are a problem that can be solved with rhetoric (can’t argue with the weather), an audience that can be persuaded (can’t argue with zombies), and a context convenient for rhetoric (can’t argue during a loud rock concert). For a thorough explanation, check out my introduction to rhetorical situations.

If and only if you have all of those elements, you can respond with an argument.

Bitzer argued that rhetors find rhetorical problems (or exigences) in the world, and respond by resolving them. Voila! Rhetorical situation. But another scholar, Richard Vatz, argued that rhetorical situations are created by the rhetor and are not found “out there” in the world.

Per usual, both academics are wrong. And they’re a little bit right. (They’re wrought.) Let me explain…

1. Focus on the world.

The first thing we can say for sure about rhetors is that their evaluation of possible rhetorical situations comes from the facts of reality. That is, rhetors can neither conjure a rhetorical situation out of nothing or discover one that doesn’t exist. Rhetors are human (despite popular belief) and, therefore, cannot evade the basic laws of existence. No matter how hard they try, their consciousness cannot change what is real. Their will doesn’t move the world.

This is an important principle to know–despite the simplicity–because it’s regularly ignored by rhetors of all types. If people aren’t willing to hear arguments in favor of capitalism, for example, no amount of prepping or clever formulations will change their minds. There is no rhetorical situation for capitalism among Alinsky radicals.

Too many rhetors pursue avenues of argument that are bound to fail by their nature. Don’t fight existence. Accept it and act accordingly.

There are no rhetorical situations that don’t correspond to reality.

2. A rhetor is necessary.

Though I don’t think Bitzer intended to do so, his emphasis on rhetorical situations being in the world makes the rhetor seem unimportant. (Who is finding these situations, Lloyd?) I suspect that’s why Vatz wanted to argue that, “Hey! Rhetors are important, too!”

In fact rhetorical situations don’t exist independent of rhetors. They’re not apples that we pick from a tree and throw at our opponents. They’re moments where we see the potential and seize the opportunity. Rhetorical situations are more so analogous to apple farming than the apples themselves.

If a rhetorical apple tree falls in the forest, and there’s no rhetor there to hear it, does it make an argument? (Such a stretch…) Even if a non-rhetor comes upon a rhetorical situation, their inexperience might make it impossible for them to act. In this sense, rhetors are necessary to make meaning and action out of the corresponding reality.

There are no rhetorical situations without rhetors.

3. Discover! Refine.

Rhetors must look to reality in order to discover rhetorical situations. The “discovery” metaphor is a good one if we think about it as a scientific discovery—i.e., the discovery of gravity or relativity. “Discover” makes rhetors acknowledge that it’s the application of their minds to the world that lead to better persuasion.

A key element of the “discovery” metaphor is that there’s no end . Yes, you’ve discovered a rhetorical situation and you’re working to make your argument the best possible response, but there is always additional context, better formulations, more accurate analysis. You get to play rhetorical scientist! Enjoy it.

Rhetorical situations require the interaction between rhetor and reality.

* * * * *

Rhetorical situations are complex. As complex as iPads. But instead of bits and bytes rhetors deal in enthymemes and syllogisms. Understanding where rhetorical situations come from—and how you might create an argument in response—will make you a better, more thorough rhetor.

Happy persuading!

Photo by Flickr user Matt Buchanan.