Chapter 10: The Rhetorical Situation

Martin Luther King speaking at the University of Minnesota, 1967
Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at the University of Minnesota, 1967. Minnesota Historical Society. CC BY-SA 2.0

This chapter is about the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation is a framework for rhetorical analysis designed for individual speeches and assessing their reception by an audience. This chapter offers a detailed explanation of the rhetorical situation and defines its core components: the exigence, the audience, and constraints. The second section of the chapter provides detailed examples of the rhetorical situation. The third section explains a related model of “situation” called the “rhetorical ecology.” This chapter contains YouTube video content not presented in the recorded lectures.

Watching the video clips embedded in the chapters may add to the projected “read time” listed in the headers.  Please also note that the audio recording for this chapter covers the same tested content as is presented in the chapter below.

Chapter Recordings

 

Read this Next

  • Palczewski, Catherine Helen, et al. “Chapter 8 Rhetorical Situations.” Rhetoric in Civic Life, Strata Pub., State College, PA, 2012, pp. 225–263.

 

Part 1: Defining the Rhetorical Situation

The rhetorical situation is a fundamental framework for understanding rhetoric as a form of persuasion, that is, as a speech or text that seeks to influence an audience’s actions. It describes rhetoric as a response to a problem or an answer to a question. Given an imperfect state of affairs, rhetoric responds or intervenes to create some change by addressing an audience. The rhetorical situation is also part of the tradition of public address scholarship. Public address may consist in the composition of eloquent speeches that are to be delivered in public settings, a studied reflection upon the geographical locations where public events have occurred in the past, or the researching of presidential correspondence, letters, or newsprint publications about former occupants of the executive branch. Public address is most aptly described as the criticism of public speech that approximates more closely a genuinely historical point of view regarding the ideas of our shared social history.

The rhetorical situation is also part of a tradition that understands rhetoric as context-dependent. Often, rhetorical scholars attribute this idea to Aristotle, who defines rhetoric as “the available means of persuasion in any given situation. In other words, understanding the force of a persuasive speech act relies upon a deep knowledge of the setting in which it was spoken. Aristotle also describes rhetoric’s situations in terms of three discrete genresForensic rhetoric is about the past and whether it did or did not happen; the traditional “situation” for forensic rhetoric was the courtroom proceeding. Epideictic, about matters of praise or blame, was speech situated in public spaces and delivered to a mass audience. Deliberative or policy-making speeches would occur in the situation of legislation and lawmaking, in service of developing a future course of action.

Forensic Epideictic Deliberative
The past The present The future
Facts: whether a thing did or did not happen. Values: whether to issue praise or blame. Policy: whether we should (not) take action.
Judiciary or Courts Punditry or Eulogy Legislation and Law

These three original genres of speech give the speech that is delivered in these spaces a specific function. They respond to a set of pre-defined circumstances concerning matters of factgood and bad judgment, and policy. The rhetorical situation is an extension of this understanding. It provides us with a framework that says that speech responds to a set of pre-existing circumstances and is tailored for an audience.

According to Lloyd Bitzer, the rhetorical situation is that it is a “complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced in the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence.

  • First, the rhetorical situation is a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations. The complex of persons includes speakers and audiences. Events include important and historic instances of speech and speech-making. Objects include the symbols gathered by speeches, what those speeches reference, and the speech’s effects. The complex relations of the situation describes the audiences it brings forth and the modes of identification it cultivates.
  • Second, the rhetorical situation presents an actual or potential exigence. An exigence is “an urgency marked by imperfection.” It describes a state of discontent or emergency in which speech is an adequate response and can bring about a resolution. Exigences ultimately describe the problem that the speech must respond to.
  • Third, the rhetorical situation can completely or partially remove the exigence. This means that an adequate speech makes the exigence is reversible by producing effects and audiences that are capable of addressing or effecting the change as the emergency requires.
  • Fourth, the rhetorical situation introduces discourse into the situation. This means that the use or application of rhetoric can undo the emergency. A speech that will heal the situation will bring things to a resolution.
  • Fifth, the speech presented in a rhetorical situation may constrain human decisions or actions. This means that a situation is rhetorical when speech resolves an emergency by steering people to act in a way that, had the speech not happened, they otherwise would not.
  • Finally, the speech presented in a rhetorical situation may bring about a significant modification of the exigence. Significant modification means that the speech does something to address the problem. Ultimately, this effect of speech upon a greater exigence is what makes the situation a rhetorical one.

Key Aspects of Rhetorical Situations

  • The historical context is the larger background in which a message is situated. The rhetorical situation is a subset of that field, a smaller, more defined relative of a greater historical context.
  • The rhetorical situation always places three specific elements into a relationship with each other. These are the rhetorical exigence, the audience, and the constraints.
  • rhetorical exigence is an urgency marked by imperfection. It is the thing to which a speech – the rhetorical response – responds.
  • rhetorical audience is those people who have the capacity to act on the speaker’s message.
  • A rhetorical constraint describes those things that limit the audience to interpret the message and steer them to act in one direction or another.

A Rhetorical Situation is not a “Context” …

A further important feature of the rhetorical situation is that it is not the same as context. This is, first of all, because every message occurs in a context, and not all contexts are rhetorical. Practically, this means that context is general, and the rhetorical situation is specific. A historical context is one in which any message can occur.

… because not all contexts are rhetorical.

A rhetorical situation is a situation that allows for a response, a speech that is capable of changing people’s minds and motivating their actions. The second reason the rhetorical situation is not the same as context is that only a rhetorical situation can invite a rhetorical response.

… because only a rhetorical situation can invite a rhetorical response.

Context is the history of an utterance, a series of motivations, occurrences, and acts that set a precedent for a public and cultural status quo. As a running example of the difference between context and situation, let’s consider the 2020 presidential impeachment hearings.

The greater context for these presidential impeachment hearings might include the 1987 Iran-Contra scandal and the 1998 impeachment hearing of Bill Clinton. Both are distant historical events in which speeches and arguments were made concerning Congress’s authority over the Executive branch. Consistently, attorneys for the President have claimed that Congress did not have the authority to investigate the President whereas Congress has claimed that authority.

The rhetorical situation for Presidential impeachment hearings in 2020 would instead be the circumstances and consequences surrounding a 2019 phone call between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Donald Trump. The speakers and speeches generated by the impeachment trials themselves would be the “rhetoric” that responded to this situation. It would be comprised of Congressional testimony, official investigative reports, political biographies, and commentary by political pundits.

Rhetorical Response/Rhetorical Audience

Not every response to a rhetorical situation is rhetorical. Non-rhetorical responses are those that do not affect the exigency.  Rhetorical responses are those that do. An emergency such as war might provoke messages that people should be afraid or display courage. Those messages can’t be separated from the emergency that occasioned it. In that sense, they are “responses” to the rhetorical situation. But not every “response” has its intended effects, and not every “response” can be directly tied back to the exigence at hand.

Below is an example of the testimony offered during the 2019 impeachment hearings instigated by the Zelensky-Trump phone conversation. The speaker is Fiona Hill, a U.S. diplomatic liaison to the Ukraine who was removed from her post just days before the phone call occurred.

response is rhetorical when it is addressed to a rhetorical audience, that is, those auditors or listeners who have the capacity to act. Not all audiences can be rhetorical audiences. In practice, this means more people will hear the rhetorical response than can address it—only people who can act count as the rhetorical audience.

For example, consider a political speech urging young people to vote  delivered by a candidate that is delivered to an audience that has a mix of high school students. However, this speech may be heard by the younger members of the crowd or people whose naturalization status prevents them from voting. If the sought-after effect of the speech is for people to vote for the candidate, then Bitzer’s theory of the rhetorical situation is limited because it only includes those with the capability to vote.

Exigence, Audience, and Constraints

The rhetorical exigence is defined as imperfection marked by urgency. It is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing other than it should be. There are also non-rhetorical exigences, or “emergencies,” for which speech isn’t a good or effective response. Bitzer describes a natural disaster as a “non-rhetorical exigence” – a well-delivered speech, traditionally conceived, might not be the best immediate response. Instead of speech alone, an adequate rhetorical response would have to include emergency alerts, funding, and climate change mitigation efforts. What makes for a rhetorical exigence is when speech provides the remedy to the imperfection by urgency.

In the case referenced earlier, the recorded conversation between Zelensky and Trump documented a request to investigate Joe Biden in exchange for an already-promised military defense system. This conversation is the rhetorical exigence: it generated a public emergency for which speech was deemed to be a fitting response.

The rhetorical audience is defined as only those capable of being influenced by discourse and of being mediators of change. They must be capable of making some change that would adjust the exigence due to hearing the speech.

There were at least two rhetorical audiences for the 2020 impeachment proceedings. One rhetorical audience of the Senate hearings consisted of the US Senate and Chief Justice John Roberts. They were the ones who would be ultimately voting on the Impeachment. In the style of forensic rhetoric, the Senators and possibly Roberts in the event of a tie were charged with discovering whether or not the President had committed an impeachable offense. Because they were the ones with the capacity to act, they composed the rhetorical audience.

The American voting public was a second rhetorical audience insofar as the messages conveyed in the Senate were meant to convince voters to turn out for the November 2020 election. Hearing the appeals on the Senate floor also persuaded those who could vote to cast them.

Finally, rhetorical constraints are comprised of persons, events, objects, and relations. These are part of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision-making and action.

In the Senate, constraints could include procedural limitations such as who gets to make the rules about how and when testimony is offered. It could be relations, in the sense partisan groups would seek to shut the trials down. It could be that another emergency interrupts the proceedings, or prevents that event from being remembered.

Responses to Rhetorical Situations

There are different kinds of responses to rhetorical situations.

  • The first response is conformity, in which the audience accepts what the speech is asking of them, and they perform the action that is requested.
  • The second is desecration which violates what would have been an appropriate response. Given that there is a normal range of responses that would be accepted from a situation, the response of desecration would violate those expectations and challenge them. If someone were giving a eulogy, for instance, laughter would be a prohibited response and example of desecration.

The famous Apple “1984” advertisement linked below offers a dramatized example of both “conformity” and “desecration,” in the sense that the gathered viewers are in conformity with the televised speaker’s message whereas the running character who throws the sledgehammer violates conformist expectations and desecrating both the speaker and their message.

  • The third response is non-participation, which rejects the legitimacy of the rhetorical situation by refusing to be a part of it. In other words, it says that the emergency is not that big of an emergency, or that we don’t have to be so concerned about the emergency that is being posed. That non-participation is a rhetorical response because it simultaneously responds to the exigency by refusing to recognize it.
  • Finally, contextual reconstruction is when a rhetor redefines the situation. In other words, given the rhetorical effort to redefine or reframe the exigency, it provides an alternative look at the current circumstances.

Below is an episode of Crossfire, a debate-style television show from the early 2000s which embraces a both-sides format. This episode features John Stewart, recently the new host of the Daily Show. Stewart first engages in non-participation by rejecting the premise of the show and refusing to “debate.” He then engages in a contextual reconstruction that reframes Crossfire as contributing to a destructive both-sides mentality in politics. Stewart’s explanation is a contextual reconstruction because reframed the event, putting it in a new light. His appearance also coincided with the cancellation of the show shortly thereafter.

Part 2: Analysis of a Rhetorical Situation

This section of the chapter provides detailed examples of the major terms of the rhetorical situation, including rhetorical exigence, context, audience, and constraints. It ends with an example of a rhetorical situation, with a brief discussion of each of its parts.

Rhetorical Exigence: Michael Brown and Barack Obama

The exigence is the defect of the status quo. It is a problem we live with that has become acute; it is an emergency that is other than it should be. Rhetorical exigences can be modified through discourse. “In any rhetorical situation, there will be at least one controlling exigence which functions as an organizing principle.” This “organizing exigence” defines the audience to be addressed and the change to be effected.

On August 9, 2014, a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, spurring nationwide mass protests against police brutality. The following year, in April 2015, protests erupted in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, who was brutally assaulted as he was arrested, fell into a coma, and died. These events also illustrated the larger problem that police departments had started to acquire military equipment as a way to police crowds, and technologies that the military had previously used during wartime deployments oversees suddenly became technologies used to police American citizens. Worse yet, police who were using these weapons had not been trained to use them appropriately. The racial bias of police departments across the country was becoming apparent given the accumulation of events related to police brutality.

This short speech by Barack Obama on October 31, 2015 sought to address the exigence of mass incarceration and over-policing by healing the divide between the different groups he addresses. We should think hard about whether this speech is accomplishing that goal given its emphasis on helping the economy and people recently released from prison. However, what is clear is that it is both a response to a problem that exists prominently at the moment that Obama is speaking and a way of curating the behavior of the audiences that are meant to hear this speech.

If the rhetorical situation “specifies the audience to be addressed,” then in the above clip, we can quite clearly hear Obama discussing “drug rehabilitation” and the pipeline from schools to prisons. We also heard Obama discussing police officers as people who “protect Americans.” To whom is this addressed? Both audiences: it is meant to affirm both the structural causes of mass incarceration for the public made angry by prominent instances of police brutality and defend violent police officers by describing them as civil servants. However, this speech neither addresses police brutality directly nor holds police officers accountable for excessive use of force. Specified audiences of the rhetorical situation includes over-policed and structurally oppressed Americans and police officers, resulting in a “middle voice” that is stretched between these audiences.

Context: 13th by Ava DuVernay

Obama’s speech, shown above, occurs within a larger context of racial policing in the United States, which disproportionately targets minoritized communities. Every message occurs within a context: a larger, more encompassing umbrella term for the setting in which a speech or utterance happens. Context is the history of the speech or utterance, a series of motivations, occurrences, and acts that set a precedent for the current status quo – which means how things are in our present moment, right now. Consider the video below as an illustration of the larger context for Obama’s 10/31/2015 speech. The documentary “13th” by Ava DuVernay explains the historical transition from slavery to the thirteenth amendment to a contemporary system of mass incarceration.

Rhetorical Audience: George H.W. Bush v. Michael Dukakis

Next, let’s consider the rhetorical audience, which describes only those capable of being influenced by a speech (or rhetorical discourse) and of being mediators of change.

Above is another rhetorical message that is situated within the larger context of mass incarceration. However, it has a different situation: the 1988 Dukakis/Bush presidential election. The video is a campaign advertisement from the first George Bush campaign which attacks Dukakis. The exigence is Dukakis’s early lead on George Bush, which created an opening for a rhetorical response. This response is important for how it targeted specific voters by preying on the stereotype of violent minorities and the idea that people who had been imprisoned would always be “prisoners” or “criminals,” regardless of rehabilitation or if their incarceration was unjust. Let’s take a look at the video.

The rhetorical audience here isn’t just who can be influenced by the message. Viewers, for instance, might be angered by the message that’s being sent by this video. It is specifically those who would act on that message by voting against the Dukakis campaign. Viewers who might react against this message are also a rhetorical audience. They may reject the message and doing the opposite of what it asks or offer an alternative explanation of mass incarceration that does not rely on racist caricatures.

Rhetorical Constraints: Parody and Satire

Let’s consider the last element of the rhetorical situation: constraints. Constraints are comprised of persons, events, objects, and relations that are part of the situation because they can constrain decision-making and action that could modify the exigence. This example offers another campaign ad. IT is not as clearly related to the larger context of mass incarceration. This video illustrates “constraints” by showing how political campaign ads are always limited in what they can say or the messages they communicate.

 

The Phil Gulbright/Gil Fulbright/Phillip Mymoufwiffarts political advertisement illustrates the limitations on the speaker because he draws attention to how his own beholdenness to multiple audiences: the voting public and his private donors – narrowly shape his own rhetorical response.

Rhetorical Situation: The Challenger Address

The final example of the rhetorical situation is Ronald Reagan’s Challenger Address Speech.

 

The following explanation of this rhetorical situation comes from Catherine Palczewski et al.:

Reagan clearly identified the exigence: “the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger… is truly a national loss” that made it a day “for mourning and remembering,” but the march of progress and the call for exploration gave meaning to that loss of life.

The context for this meaning was a history of exploration associated with past empires. According to Reagan, the members of the space shuttle crew had “a hunger to explore the universe” and were part of a long line of explorers. The examples of the 1967 Apollo I fire and the 1596 death of Francis Drake offered similar historical events that helped make the loss of life during exploration seem normal and expected. As Reagan explained to schoolchildren: “Its all part of the process of exploration and discovery.”

The audiences in the situation were composed of people who shared the need for reassurance and the sentiment that exploration defines the people of the United States: the families of the astronauts, schoolchildren, NASA workers, and the viewing public who had tuned in to the event. Reagan provided an explanation not of the accident but of exploration. He thus offered a response that quickly passed through stages of mourning while seeking to reinforce the public faith in expanded American space exploration. Reagan’s hybrid response sought to justify funding for the space program (a deliberative goal) while also eulogizing the lives of the astronauts who had died in the explosion (an epideictic goal).

The constraints in the situation concerned the genre of eulogy, which Reagan mirrored in structuring his speech. He also assumed a paternalistic role in the speech, speaking not only as President but as an elder relative to schoolchildren who had been watching the speech from across the country.

As a total rhetorical situation, the rhetor, Reagan, responded to an exigence by speaking to particular audiences, such as school children and the viewing public, in a way that accounted for constraints such as the appropriate way to respond to a tragic loss of life. Reagan did not just respond to this situation, but sought to actively redefine what it meant.

Part 3: Rhetorical Ecologies

Although Lloyd Bitzer develops the concept of “the rhetorical situation” there are several other participants in this conversation. I’d like to draw our attention to Lloyd Bitzer, Richard Vatz, and Jenny Edbauer.

  1. Bitzer is the originator of the rhetorical situation. In his view, there is first a situation, then there is a rhetorical response, and finally, rhetoric that people can act upon. The emergency arises and it creates conditions for a speaker to invent a speech that moves people to some action.
  2. Vatz argues that rhetoric arises not because of a situation, but because of the speaker. From this point of view, there is no emergency unless a rhetor perceives there to be an emergency. It is the speaker’s job to create a shared reality for the audience through their speech. However, if the public’s perception of an emergency depends on the speaker, a real, material reality may be at odds with other “emergencies” that a speaker brings to the public’s attention as distractions. The realities of pandemics and climate change, for instance, may be something that a speaker cannot distract from with another “imagined” exigence. Some emergencies simply cannot be ignored or deflected by a speaker because they form such a commonly felt urgency.
  3. Edbauer argues that rhetoric never occurs in one situation but always unfolds across many situations. Whereas Bitzer and Vatz focus on individual speeches delivered in isolated situations, Edbauer is more interested in the way that rhetoric moves from one situation to another, much like a viral tweet or video. Rhetoric that occurs in one situation may then give rise to similar rhetoric that arises in a separate situation. This then may create yet another rhetorical response, unrelated to the first, and so on. The speaker isn’t the most important person in the Edbauer model. Instead, the rhetoric moves from one rhetorical moment to the next to produce a message across a variety of situations.

Rhetorical ecologies are variations on the traditional framework of the rhetorical situation. A rhetorical situation is typically conceived as a speaker’s unique creation or as a response to an emergency. Edbauer’s version of a rhetorical situation suggests that it isn’t fixed; it does not happen once or in isolation. Instead, Edbauer argues that exigences are always a series of events. These situations create a network of lived experiences and structures of feeling. Edbauer also contextualizes rhetoric in terms of time, history, and experience. Rhetoric from this point of view isn’t linear. It doesn’t start with a speaker who devises a speech that is received by an audience. Rhetoric moves from one moment to another, from one situation to another. It changes depending on the historical moment and the particular experiences that a given instance of rhetoric foregrounds.

 

Newton's fixed space vs. Einstein's flexible spacetime, from the film "Testing Einstein's Universe" by Norbert Bartel.
Newton’s fixed space vs. Einstein’s flexible spacetime, from the film “Testing Einstein’s Universe” by Norbert Bartel.
  • The Rhetorical Situation: Traditionally conceived, situations are fixed spaces. By comparison, rhetorical ecologies are dynamic spaces. The word situation comes from the Latin Situs, which signifies a bordered and fixed location. An example of Situs is the (incorrect) idea of the Earth as the presumptive center of the Universe, having a stable position that does not affect the space around it. A Situs for rhetoric would mean that everything revolves around the speech’s ability to respond to an emergency.
  • The Rhetorical Ecology: Instead of a Situs for rhetoricthe ecology model describes rhetoric’s force, intensity, and circulatory range as a distribution. This would be like the shift from the Newtonian Model to the Einsteinian Model, where space is molded or shaped around the speech or object. In other words, there is no clear “center” for rhetoric; rhetoric instead has many centers with distinct mass and gravity. Rather than just one speech or rhetorical discourse, an ecology-based approach would think about multiple speeches or discourses and how they affect and interact with one another.

Writing as Rhetorical Situation and Rhetorical Ecology

Let’s consider “writing an assignment” in terms of the situation and ecology models of rhetoric. As a Situswriting would be a very linear process. It would follow a first, second, third progression: receive the assignment (the exigence), outline and draft a (rhetorical) response, and see if it had the intended effect (upon an instructor or peers). The writer would make a message, then transmit it to an audience. Bitzer would say that there is an emergency to which the writer responds, like an upcoming deadline, and then their text or speech offers a more or less adequate response to that emergency.

Writing conceived in terms of distribution means that it would occur across a range of processes and encounters. There is, for instance, the event of starting a blank document and the tyranny of the blinking cursor. Your encounter with the keyboard might restrict or open up the flow of words. It might also create physical limitations as your fingers begin to cramp or your posture hunches over. You may stop, lose your place, or write across multiple days, weeks, or months. Then again, the same act of writing may occur in a group setting or a collaborative document. These interactions could energize your writing and stimulate productivity, or zap your ability to focus by creating pools of distracting conversation. As distribution, writing doesn’t happen in one moment or even because of one person. Instead, it happens across many moments and with the influence of many people. In a rhetorical ecology, there isn’t just one audience for writing but many. Writing would occur across distinct situations that describe how the process of writing is lived, or even how our writing outlives our unique authorship, getting picked up by other people who revise and repurpose it.

According to Edbauer, “To say that we are connected is another way of saying that we are never outside the networked interconnections of forces, energies, rhetorics, moods, and experiences. In other words our practical consciousness is never outside the prior and ongoing structure of feeling that shape the social field.”

Rhetorical ecologies highlight the importance of a shared and interactive social field. They demand an understanding of how certain speech acts, utterances, or writing circulate and proliferate. Similar to biology, where ecology refers to the relationships between organisms and their environment, rhetorical ecologies illustrate how words interact with their environment over and over again. Rhetoric from this perspective isn’t static but viral; it has effects beyond what a single author could ever anticipate.

“The intensity, force, and circulatory range of a rhetoric[al ecology] are always expanding through the mutations and new exposures attached to that given rhetoric, much like a virus.  … A rhetoric emerges already infected by the viral intensities that are circulating in the social field.”

Examples of Rhetorical Ecologies: The Amen Break

The Rhetorical Ecology model means that rhetoric never just occurs within one isolated situation, but evolves and moves across different situations.  This means that rhetoric interacts with other pressing issues or concerns of the moment. A viral intensity is how topics may be pressing or important at one moment and how those concerns may transform a given instance of rhetoric from one moment to the next. Below is a clip about the “Amen break,” which explains how a given text moves across situations rather than remaining stationary.

As the video indicates, although you may not know it, you have likely heard the Amen break in many different advertisements and musical genres. Rather than occurring in a single situation, the Amen break happens across different moments that enable it to mean something different in each instance. As an example of a rhetorical ecology, the message undergoes a significant transformation as it moves from one situation to another; it means differently because it moves.

Examples of Rhetorical Ecologies: Keep Austin Weird

Let’s consider a separate example of the rhetorical ecology that comes directly from Edbauer’s article on the topic. The phrase ‘Keep Austin Weird!’ started in Austin, Texas, with the closure of the Sound Exchange, a popular record store. Gradually over time, more and more large businesses started entering Austin, including Urban Outfitters, Barnes and Noble, and Baja Grille, each of which is (or was) a national chain. Two local businesses, Book People Books and Waterloo Records decided to stand against Austin’s stand to give a tax break to a Borders that was opening across the street from them.

According to Steve Baroo, the owner of Book People Books: “I was talking to the people of Waterloo Records about our struggle to stop the city of Austin from providing incentives to the developer, who planned to put a chain book store across the street from our stores. I suggested that we get some bumper stickers that said: ‘Keep Austin Weird,’ put both our logos on them and then give them away at our stores. He decided that we should buy five-thousand stickers and saw what our customers thought.”

The five thousand stickers were so popular that the stores immediately bought another ten thousand and then twenty-five thousand stickers. Almost a year later, nearly sixty thousand stickers had been distributed. Soon enough, other Austin businesses joined their call to weirdness. Local businesses began to sell T-shirts with individual logos on the front and the same ‘Keep Austin Weird’ logo on the back. The phrase ‘Keep Austin Weird’ quickly passed into the city’s general culture and popular circulation. One pledge pitch for a local public radio station told listeners, “You too can work toward keeping Austin Weird by pledging to keep KOOP 917 FM on the air.”

image of "Keep Austin Weird" Tshirt
“Austin Airport, Keep Austin Weird tee shirt” by Lawrence G. Miller, CC BY NC-ND 2.0

In certain parts of Austin, it is nearly impossible to go for very long without finding some display of the slogan on a T-shirt, bumper sticker, tote bag, mug, or a local businesses billboard vowing to keep it weird. In fact, even the increasingly popular counter-slogans managed to illustrate a kind of distributed ecological spread of this rhetoric.

Appearing on T-shirts and bumper stickers throughout Austin, there is the ‘Make Austin Normal’ campaign, by a University of Texas business student who wanted to make a point of – and profit from – the ironic popularity of the “Weird” slogan. “Keep Austin Weird” was also taken up by large, gentrifying businesses, largely against its original intent. Its uptake by the South By Southwest (SXSW) Convention and Festival and local politicians indicated that real estate corporate interests co-opted the phrase interests. Ultimately, the message moved from one situation to the next and changed until eventually its meaning became antithetical to what it had signified at its inception.

Keep Minnesota Passive Aggressive sticker
Image by Teepublic.

We can even see evidence of this spread in Minnesota in the form of parodic “Keep Minnesota Passive-Aggressive” slogans.  Ultimately Edbauer’s case study investigates how ‘Keep Austin Weird’ is distributed through a rhetorical ecology, one going beyond the traditional boundaries of the rhetorical situation. As rhetorics and their companion counter-rhetorics move between situations, they respond to, resist, and transform the message. Sometimes these messages address the original exigence; other times, they deflect from it. When we set aside the rhetor, audience, exigence, and constraints as the only elements of rhetoric deserving of attention, we can see how textual movement extends our understanding of where, when, and how communication happens.

Additional Resources

Models of the Rhetorical Situation

Examples of Rhetorical Situation-Based Criticism

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Reading Rhetorical Theory by Atilla Hallsby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book