Activity theory and the analysis of rhetorical situations

Especially in reading Grant-Davie’s piece, it seemed to me that we may as well be reading about activity theory again. He divides the rhetorical situation into four components: exigence, rhetors, audiences, and constraints. In doing so, I think he has envoked activity theory to analyze rhetorical situations (which then may be described as activity systems?).

So the exigence of a rhetorical situation entails these questions: What is the discourse about? Why is the discourse needed? What is the discourse trying to accomplish? (Grant-Davie 268-9). Wardle and Kain’s description of motives seems to stack right on top of that rhetorical exigency: “The Motives direct the subject’s activities. Motives include the Object of the Activity, which is fairly immediate, and the Outcome, which is more removed and ongoing” (277). The rhetors of Grant-Davie’s rhetorical situation are the subjects of the activity system; the rhetor’s (or rhetors’) audience–“Those people, real or imagined, with whom rhetors negotiate through discourse to achieve the rhetorical objectives” (Grant-Davie 270)–are the community of an activity system. The relation between constraints and AT is a little more nuanced; I think Rules may fold into constraints. Grant-Davie identifies that the idea of constraints is a little fuzzy, calling it “the hardest of the rhetorical situation components to define neatly” (272). Basically, from his heading definition, they’re factors in the situational context (272). We certainly see rules as a kind of constraint in the example Grant-Davie provides at the end of his piece regarding the law and the hotel sign in the Rocky Mountain community.  However, I’m a little unsatisfied with this piece of the bridge between AT and the analysis of rhetorical situations in today’s readings.

Q: Where might constraints fit in an AT analysis of the rhetorical situation, if at all?

Q: One other thought that I had while thinking between AT and the rhetorical situation is the role of conflict. Conflict in some fashion seems to be latent in the rhetorical situation; the goal of the rhetor is to look at the situation’s issue (…miscommunication? To take a cue from the odd start of Bitzer’s section IV, p. 13) and find its resolution. Conflict enters into Wardle and Kain’s description of AT but only insofar as Rules stabilize conflict within the organization. How else does conflict play into AT or activity systems?


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