I Feel Constrained: Justin Atwell and a History of Bad Title-Writing

One of Grant-Davie’s major critiques of Bitzer’s “Rhetorical Situation” in “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents” is that it is noticeably vague. He defines them as “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” (8). He compares them to Aristotle’s “artistic” and “inartistic” proofs. Grant-Davie argues that this definition is limited and offers his own interpretation: “I refer to the kind that support a rhetor’s case as positive constraints, or assets, and those that might hinder it as negative constraints, or liabilities” (272) In addition, Grant-Davie believes that many positive constraints (artistic proofs in this case) exist within the rhetor. As such, he “excludes” the rhetor, banishing her from the Land of Constituents to her own private island of Rhetopia (my apologies to Booth for the plagiarism).

Though I believe Grant-Davie’s distinction between positive and negative constraints is a wise and necessary one, I disagree with the valuation of rhetor as its own constituent category. In Bitzer’s original depiction, I kind of enjoyed the fact that the rhetor seemed like an afterthought: “When the orator, invited by situation, enters it and creates and presents discourse, then both he and his speech are additional constituents” (8). To Ibtissem’s point about winning arguments, it seems to me that much of the misconception that rhetoric and the teaching of rhetoric is all about winning arguments stems from the fact that we place too much emphasis on the rhetor. From the Progymnasmata to Process Theory to many present day pedagogies, it seems the rhetor is foregrounded, and Grant-Davies does it again. While the rhetor is important, I think it’s important to idle a moment and think more about the other involved “constituents” involved in any given situation For example, see Foss and Griffin’s “Invitational Rhetoric”–a delightful piece of feminist rhetoric that never really gained any traction, which is a gol’ dern shame IMHO.

Q1: What about the “unimportant” conversations of daily life? Do those not exist in a rhetorical situation? Bitzer made me think they did. Grant-Davie made me think they did not.

Q2: How do we see rhetorical situations as related to Discourse Communities? I’m thinking specifically about Grant-Davie’s baseball game on 270.

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4 thoughts on “I Feel Constrained: Justin Atwell and a History of Bad Title-Writing

  1. Justin, I’d like to attempt to navigate my way through your first question, because I feel you highlight an important point about Grant-Davie’s interpretation of “constraints,” as he defines and differentiates it from Bitzer’s definition relative to the role of rhetor in dialectic situations. He categorizes constraints “as all factors in the situation, aside from the rhetor and the audience, that may lead the audience to be either more or less sympathetic to the discourse, and that may therefore influence the rhetor’s response to the situation” (273). I believe, based on this broad definition, that the “‘unimportant’ conversations of daily life” exist for Grant-Davie as both a rhetorical situation and a constraint, not only in the form of a verbal exchange but in a multiplicity of explicit and implicit contexts, of which relationship, history, culture, and other nuanced factors contribute. Since these exchanges are layered and, to your second question, enmeshed within and sometimes divided by discourse communities, a more complex treatment of constraints and the larger concern of exigence is valuable. For this reason, I don’t think that Grant-Davie excludes the “constituents” of a rhetorical situation but invites them to participate in more direct ways in his conception of the rhetorical situation. The zoning argument at the end of the article is an example of how rhetorical situations scale, expand, and shift beyond the “neat boundaries” of the singular situation to a “compound rhetorical situation, made up of a group of closely related individual situations” (274), of which “‘the unimportant’ conversations of daily life” certainly fit. I suspect Grant-Davie would even argue that an exigence of some type drives these seemingly unimportant rhetorical situations as well–the need to adhere to social niceties, maintain or foster a friendship, coexist in a work setting, etc. I would go so far as to suggest that in Grant-Davie’s model the unimportant finds its rhetorical place and purpose as the rhetorician deconstructs the situation. Great question.

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  2. I think stasis theory is more productive when considering whether there is a relationship between rhetorical situations and discourse communities. The impression, maybe, is to evaluate integrity and receptivity in terms of a community. If the Little League game occurs in a different town, and the visiting team is clueless to the umpire’s “day job” as the police chief, the parents might issue more challenges. The constraints really reflect initial information access, right? The “clueless” visiting team parents do not experience the same type of constraints as the home team parents.

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  3. Justin I might not be getting you right when you use the word “unimportant” in your first question but if I get you right by any chance, I think Bitzer is more restrictive. The characteristics of the constituents of the rhetorical situation and the resulting rhetoric that he offers are quite limiting. Consider, for example: “A work of rhetoric is pragmatic; it comes into existence for the sake of something beyond itself…in short, rhetoric is a mode of altering reality” (3-4), “a situation is rhetorical in so far as it needs and invites discourse capable of participating with situations and thereby altering its reality” (6), “an exigence that cannot be modified is not rhetorical” (6), “rhetorical audience must be distinguished from a body of mere hearers” (8) and many more. I doubt whether there is any place for the “unimportant” in this scheme. The exigence that needs to be altered cannot be unimportant, similarly, the audience who is mediator and capable of bringing change might only be concerned with tasks that can “change the reality.” So in Bitzer’s scheme, “unimportant conversation” might not have any place in the rhetorical situation.

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  4. I just want to say I think this is nicely put by Rob: the “‘unimportant’ conversations of daily life” exist for Grant-Davie as both a rhetorical situation and a constraint, not only in the form of a verbal exchange but in a multiplicity of explicit and implicit contexts, of which relationship, history, culture, and other nuanced factors contribute.”

    I concur.

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