Rhetorical Analysis, Part 3

In “The Anatomy of Critical Discourse,” Lawrence W. Rosenfield suggests the critic answers the following four questions:

  • What is a critic?
  • How does criticism differ from other intellectual endeavors?
  • What questions should criticism answer?
  • How are reasons produced and organized? (67)

What is a critic? As a critic, I am interested in observing and discussing sections of John’s Gospel (especially those sections about Christ’s treatment of women), and I appreciate the way John created and shared his discourse. While I was researching John’s Gospel for this project, I began to appreciate this Gospel even more. Continued training and sharpening sensitivity would help me become an expert in the discourse. (Rosenfield 68)

How does rhetorical criticism differ from other intellectual endeavors? Criticism is a form of evaluation that always results in a value judgment about a piece of discourse. Although scientific reports tend to explore ideas in a neutral tone and the author offers no opinion about the study’s results, critics will offer an opinion, even if the opinion is a neutral evaluation of what made the discourse work as it did and not a “good-bad” judgment. (Rosenfield 71)

What questions should my criticism answer? The questions I will answer depend on the variables I study. The four variables available for study are the source or creator of the message; the message; the context of the message or the environment in which the original audience received the message; and the critic. (Rosenfield 74) Rhetorical criticism will focus on a study which involves some combination of variables including the message; these combinations are the following (Rosenfield 75):

  • Message-critic
  • Message-environment
  • Source-message
  • Message-environment-critic
  • Source-message-critic
  • Source-message-environment

The first focus offered is the message-critic focus. A critic taking this approach looks introspectively at the discourse as a unique event, a private transaction between himself and the author of the message. The question the critic will seek to answer is “What is this message saying to me?” (Rosenfield 75) The message-critic focus is the most common approach taken by Biblical interpreters.

The message-environment focus is interesting to critics studying the history of an era in order to show that the message is a reflection of its time. The critic focused on message-environment relationship may also be interested in how the message fulfilled the needs of its audience and how the audience interpreted the message in light of its needs. (Rosenfeld 76) I believe this to be the approach that Lloyd Bitzer took when he devised his analytical framework. The exigence, audience, and constraints are part of the environment in which the discourse was created. While it is possible to look at the author’s distracting qualities as constraints, I believe that the qualities would be manifest in the author’s communication, thus serving as constraints within the message and removing the author from the critical view.

The critic studying the source-message relationship will seek to “understand discourse as an expression of its creator.” (Rosenfield 75) The critic will want to know what in the source’s background–education, books read, source’s inspiration–accounts for the way the message was conveyed. The critic may also try to understand and evaluate the source’s behavior based on the message.

The next two critical relationships take into account the idea that watching an event alters it and distorts any information that could be gathered. The message-environment-critic focus rests on the beginning of criticism as the moment the critic encounters the message; however, this view sees the message as an event which culminates the moment the audience receives the message. The critic is not as concerned with the source’s influence on the message. For a critic operating within the message-environment-critic framework, no text has a single meaning; whatever the source may have meant to write, he wrote what he wrote. (Valery, qtd. in Rosenfield 78)

The second is source-message-critic. The critic believes that the source’s intent can be found in the message in the moment when the critic experiences the message. The critic analyzes this moment to explain it and describe any hindrances to understanding the message. (Rosenfield 77) The critic does not have to view the message the same way the source does.

Finally, the source-message-environment focus treats the message as an attempt at persuasion and judges the source’s skill in swaying the audience. A critic studying the source-message-environment relationship will focus on how the message moved (or didn’t move) the audience toward accepting the source’s vision of how a situation should be resolved. (Rosenfield 76) This is the approach Walter Fisher takes with his narrative paradigm. Humans make arguments through stories which are the messages. The audience receives the message and evaluates it based on what their life experiences are–their environment–and what they know of the speaker–the source.

Studies of the source-message, message-environment, and source-message-environment relationships stress “objective, verifiable critical statements.” (Rosenfield 76) Although a critic may not be able to avoid personal idiosyncrasies, other critics will be able to judge the validity of the critic’s commentary based on study of the discourse and reasons given within the commentary.


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