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…