Rhetorical Situation

Rhetoric focuses on communication in a context. Speech or writing never occurs in a vacuum, but in some historical, cultural, temporal setting that is intimately tied up with how one frames discourse. In one sense, the "rhetorical situation" refers to what prods or inspires communication: a pressing need, a conventional ceremony, a specific intention.

The Greeks spoke in terms of kairos, a term that means something like "generative timeliness," or "occasion." Thus, a given kairos calls forth certain kinds of things to say. The Romans spoke of "decorum," a significant, overarching principle of rhetoric, meaning appropriateness of discourse: one needed to fit one's words not only to the subject matter, but to the audience in a given place at a given time. Sensibility to the kairos enabled one to have decorum in choosing to say the right thing to one's audience in the right way.

Because the rhetorical situation has so much to do with the nature of those who listen to or read discourse, audience itself becomes a principal term in understanding rhetoric. Rhetoric is never about discourse in the abstract; it is always concerned with directing one's words with specific intentions towards specific audiences.


Sample Rhetorical Analysis: THE RHETORICAL SITUATION:
Germany of post-World War I was demoralized and disorganized. Adolph Hitler's rhetoric was successful not only because of his personal charisma and his mastery of delivery, but because he spoke at the right time: the German people wanted a way out of its economic morass and its cultural shame, and Hitler provided them both with his strong, nationalistic oratory. Had Germany been doing better economically, Hitler's words would have bounced harmlessly off the air.

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Gideon O. Burton, Brigham Young University
Please cite "Silva Rhetoricae" (rhetoric.byu.edu)