Category Archives: Grant-Davie

Shades of Grey (not sexy)

Grant-Davie parses out Bitzer and Vatz and Consigny and where they stand in relation to each other. I feel thoroughly edified. Sigh.

Okay. I am liking, more and more, discussions of exigence/exigency. “White has pointed out that exigence need not arise from a problem but may instead be cause for celebration (291). Happy events may create exigence, calling for epideictic rhetoric.” Yay for the epideictic.

But, so may ways to parse out rhetorical situation…so many shades of grey? His fine-tooth comb is too fine.

His reference to “carpentry” put me in mind of Stephen King’s chapter, “Toolbox,” in his memoir — only King made it so that writers could find ways to get started, and Grant-Davie’s left me sitting still.

Chaos and the Rhetorical Situation

Grant-Davie begins his article by talking about how teaching students to understand “the rhetorical situations of historical events helps satisfy our demand for causality-helps us discover the extent to which the world is not chaotic but ordered, a place where actions follow patterns and things happen for good reasons.” This, to me, is a maddening logic—especially since he’s using Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War as his example. It is possible that, instead of ILLUSTRATING the order and good reason that exists in the world, in the war that killed the most Americans to date, rhetoric, instead, is capable of FABRICATING an order—or less sinisterly, explaining the inexplicable in a way that we can make enough sense of it to begin to understand. But, let’s be real—at Gettysburg, people sat having a picnic while others had their arms ripped from their bodies, and other people ran through the battlefield (after the battle) collecting teeth. That will never be unchaotic, and I resent rhetoric being used to explain away chaos.

But that said, he does add something to the discussion of certain key terms. I like his discussion of “What the discourse is about,” in that he asks “what VALUES are at stake?” I dislike the values he himself puts on the line in his own arguments (a boorish masculinity, a harsh Americanism, an absolutism, etc) but I think this is a good way of talking about topic with students. His discussion of “who is the rhetor?” is not new, but important to mention, and his discussion of audience basically incomprehensible to me. Also, his discussion of constraint is so all over the place that I can’t really get a handle on it, if you want to know the truth. Is there another way to talk about constraint—the simple fact that one cannot reach all audiences at once, use all discourses at once, discuss all topics at once?

I’m not sure what to make of this article, or the fact that we have yet to find an article that discusses “the rhetorical situation” well. I think that some clue to this can be found in the line on chaos, honestly. While Grant-Davie does acknowledge, for example, the multiplicity of rhetors, I still think many articles portray a tendancy to think of the rhetorical situation as a way to identify an extant order. And this makes sense. Order is easier to talk about than chaos.

The dynamic relationship between reader and writer in Grant-Davie

Like the other constituents of rhetorical situations, the roles of rhetor and audience are dynamic and interdependent. As a number of theorists have observed, readers can play a variety of roles during the act of reading a discourse, roles that are not necessarily played either before or after reading. These roles are negotiated with the rhetor through the discourse, and they may change during the process of reading (Ede and Lunsford 166-67; Long 73, 80; Park 249; Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 216; Phelps 156-57; Roth 182-83). Negotiation is the key term here. Rhetors’ conceptions of audiences may lead them to create new roles for themselves–or adapt existing roles-to address those audiences. Rhetors may invite audiences to accept new identities for themselves, offering readers a vision not of who they are but of who they could be. Readers who begin the discourse in one role may find themselves persuaded to adopt a new role, or they may refuse the roles suggested by the discourse. I may open a letter from a charity and read it not as a potential donor but as a rhetorician, analyzing the rhetorical strategies used by the letter writer. In that case I would see my exigence for reading the letter, and my role in the negotiation, as quite different from what the writer appeared to have had in mind for me. (footnote 5)
I find this moment, including the footnote–footnote 5–particularly fascinating and important pedagogically. Here we are encouraged to think about the fundamental relationships between readers and authors asking us to consider too I think our motivations when we read a text. In the classroom, we not only can think about how we as readers create meaning (this is also mentioned in footnote 4), but also, we can enter into a discussion of how our unconscious ideas/feelings, biases, etc. can inevitably impact how we read. This then can become a part of how we explore analysis and interpretation. I think this topic is essential to explore with students–we as readers must become aware of how our role can actually shape the text we are reading–for many this is a less than obvious notion. Not only does Grant-Davie highlight the dynamic nature of both rhetor and audience, but here we are asked to think about this “interdependent” relationship as he describes it. For students, I think these questions are key as well because here we are thinking about another way in which the processes of reading and writing are inextricably linked.

Grant-Davie’s Consideration of the Role of the Rhetor

Vatz only points out the rhetor’s role in defining the situation, yet it seems to me that rhetors are as much constituents of their rhetorical situations as are their audiences. Their roles, like those of audiences, are partly predetermined but usually open to some definition or redefinition. Rhetors need to consider who they are in a particular situation and be aware that their identity may vary from situation to situation….  situations often involve multiple rhetors. An advertisement may be sponsored by a corporation, written and designed by an advertising agency, and delivered by an actor playing the role of corporate spokesperson. Well-known actors or athletes may lend the ethos they have established through their work. (269, emphasis added)

When reading “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents,” I was struck by the clear and compelling ways that Grant-Davie explored the ways that rhetorical situations both create and are defined by their exigence, rhetor(s), audience, and constraints. Particularly interesting to me was the above passage, which really made me think about how we are defined as individuals, speakers, writers, teachers, and students by our culture and context. I typically see rhetorical situations as a jumping off point for a writing assignment or a “reason to write” that our students respond or react to.

So now, thinking through the idea that we as rhetors “are constituents of our rhetorical situations,” it makes me think that we could really work with students to gain a deeper shared understanding of how we are all defined by the questions that we ask and respond to in writing. Also, the idea that our identities as rhetors may vary from situation to situation is quite powerful — and could be useful for helping students understand transfer of writing and rhetorical strategies between situations, since our vantage points change depending on the situation, who the players are, and what’s being asked of us. Grant-Davie also brings up the idea of “receptivity” in responding to situations — which inspires questions about what is the most effective approach to respond to a given set of constraints or a call to write.

Finally, I love the idea of breaking out really specific “multiple rhetors” — especially for the purposes of analysis — since when we are analyzing multimodal texts or collaboratively produced media like TV, film, theater, or other “produced” media, it’s definitely important to understand that several rhetorical perspectives are being channeled into a final product that offers a (hopefully) seamless message, creative vision, or message about the world.


Exigence, rhetor, audience, and constraints can interlace with each other…. However, while the boundaries between the constituents will seldom be clear and stable, I do think that pursuing them initially as if they were discrete constituents helps a rhetor or rhetorician look at a situation from a variety of perspectives. My efforts in the preceding pages have been to discuss the possible complexities of rhetorical situations. Teaching student writers and readers to ask the same questions, and to understand why they are asking them, will help them realize their options, choose rhetorical strategies and stances for good reasons, and begin to understand each other’s roles.

All of the following is written through the filter of a migraine, so I don’t vouch for its coherence. That said, when I was first introduced to rhetoric as part of composition theory, I admit I struggled with it, just as Doug Downs says he continues to do in his article/chapter on rhetoric and meaning-making. It took me a while to come up with my own explanation/diagram of the rhetorical situation, and I had a rough time dealing with the ideas of exigence and constraints. But then I ran into Grant-Davie’s piece, and it began to make sense: exigence as motivation, constraints as limitations (to horribly over-simplify). I even subjected one of my community college classes to this piece, and after a bit of walking-through, they got it, and it made talking about rhetorical situations a lot easier, largely because we all began to talk about how different author/rhetor motivations interacted with social exigencies and power structures to create texts.

The reason I chose this particular paragraph at the end is that he points out that the elements of a rhetorical situation aren’t rigid, that there is overlap and fluidity as a socio-cultural situation changes and the rhetors are variously impacted by those changes. It’s a bit of a truism to say that human beings like to categorize things in order to understand them, and to turn those categories into hard-and-fast rules as a way of making sense of the world. I’m thinking mostly about how process pedagogy somehow became codified into rigidity, a stick to beat students over the heads with, but I believe as instructors we can be tempted to also rigidly codify rhetoric when we introduce students to it.

What Grant-Davie does for me, then, is two-fold. First, in the body of the article, he teases out useful explanations of exigence, rhetor, audience, and constraint in a way that truly differentiates them and makes them easier to talk to students about. Second, in this final paragraph, he provides a reminder that rhetorical situations are not closed loops, that they are socially-constructed and therefore changeable, and that teaching students to use rhetoric means being open to variable explanations and meanings.

And now I’m going in a dark room…