Rhetorical Analysis, Part 1

Author’s Note: I had written this piece while I was in graduate school exploring what I would do for my master’s project. The original project didn’t work so well; I ended up creating a large writing sample from a proof of concept that a potential customer rejected. On a bad night, I feel like I somehow sold out for practicalities. On a good night, I’d like to have a copy of the original project to turn into an e-book.

But back to this piece… I am simply going to edit on the fly as I rekey, and perhaps break the paragraphing for the mobile age. I might also have to recraft some passages for things that would have been lost over time [translate that as I’m not sure what I meant]. 🙂 I will also break the paper into parts to shorten it. I will probably publish the parts over a few hours in the evening as a serial (please, don’t leave–serials are sometimes the best way to do things). I will publish the bibliography at the very end before the epilogue.

And yes, I am still a Biblical feminist… although the feminazi sometimes comes out to play!

Rhetorical analysis, also called rhetorical criticism, is a way of interpreting and evaluating discourse (communication through writing and speaking) by looking at the relationship between and among the creator of the text or speech, the presentation of the text or speech, and the audience. (D’Angelo 604) Just as there is no set route to go from Boston to New York City, there is no one correct method of rhetorical analysis accepted by the experts. A recent opinion suggests rhetorical analysis is only “intelligent writing about works of rhetoric… in whatever way the critic can manage it.” (Klyn, qtd. in D’Angelo 605)

If even the experts don’t agree on one method of rhetorical analysis, then how can a reasonable method be developed? I develop a framework from three authors’ works that were recently included in an anthology about rhetorical criticism; I chose the three works because each work shed light on one aspect of the process of rhetorical analysis.

In the first reading, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Lloyd F. Bitzer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, suggests critiquing a piece based on how well it responds to the situation in which it was created. From this piece, I develop a framework for performing my critiques of John’s Gospel as it reflects how Christ interacts with women, particularly the stories of the Samaritan woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery. The framework is based on analyzing the characteristics of a rhetorical situation, like exigence, audience, and constraints.

The second reading, “Narration a a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument” by Walter Fisher, argues that narrative can be a form of argument because humans like to tell stories. These stories can be judged by the criteria of whether the discourse is a good story and whether the story rings true with life experience. Narratives are a democratic form of discourse because all humans are capable of telling stories. From this piece, I will learn to apply Fisher’s concept of narrative to John’s Gospel, particularly the stories of the Samaritan woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery.

“The Anatomy of Critical Discourse” by Lawrence W. Rosenfield gave me a better idea of what rhetorical criticism is and how to approach the process.

In “The Rhetorical Situation,” Lloyd F. Bitzer suggest critiquing pieces by analyzing the context in which the rhetoric was created. Although rhetorical discourse indicates the presence of a rhetorical situation, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a rhetorical situation exists only when the discourse does; “rhetoric is situational.” (Bitzer 59) Rhetorical discourse is rhetorical because of the situation for which the discourse was created. Bitzer defines the rhetorical situation as “a natural context of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance.” (Bitzer 61) The discourse created in response to the invitation to utterance participates in the situation; because the discourse participates in the situation, it gains its meaning and rhetorical character. (Bitzer 61) The discourse is pragmatic and exists for something beyond itself; moreover, the discourse was created to produce an action or change or to perform a task. (Bitzer 60)

Exigence, audience, and constraint are the three constituents of a rhetorical situation. The exigence “is an imperfection marked by an urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be.” (Bitzer 62) Although there may be many exigences within a situation, not all exigences are rhetorical; only those exigences which can be changed by discourse are rhetorical. If simply an action or tool can modify the exigence, it is not rhetorical. There is usually one controlling exigence which serves as the organizing principle and specifies the audience.

When we typically think of an audience, we think of readers of newspapers and books and listeners to speeches and concerts. However, Bitzer distinguishes the audience as only those listeners and readers “capable of being influenced by the discourse and mediators of change.” (62)

Constraints are “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.” (Bitzer 63) In addition, the rhetor’s personal character, logical proofs, and style can constrain decision. The constraints fall into two classes: (1) those which the rhetor and his method originate and maintain and (2) other constraints within the situation. (Bitzer 63)

Once the rhetor enters the situation and creates a discourse, the rhetor and the discourse are two additional constituents. (Bitzer 63)

Bitzer continued by discussing six characteristics of rhetorical discourse and situations. The first characteristic is that rhetoric is called into existence by a situation the rhetor perceives to invite the creation and presentation of discourse. The discourse is rhetorical only when the situation is rhetorical. (Bitzer 63-64) Second, the rhetorical situation invites not just any response, but a response tailored to fit the situation (Bitzer 64) The third characteristic of rhetorical discourse is that the situation prescribes which response will fit and establishes requirements for the response. (Bitzer 64) Fourth, the exigence, persons, objects, events, and relations are located in reality  and are publicly observable historic facts. These constituents are real and genuine. (Bitzer 64-65) The fifth characteristic of the rhetorical situation is that it can have a structure that is simple or complex, more or less organized. (Bitzer 65) Finally, rhetorical situations come into existence and mature. At maturity, the situation can either decay or persist, often indefinitely. (Bitzer 66)


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