Interpreting Rhetorical Context
Rhetorical context stresses the power of discourse that rests in the relationship among three
- We have learned from the beginning of the semester that rhetorical situations arise,
experiences that pull at our attention and demand that we engage in discourse with others. In
such situations, rhetors enter strategic discourse. Speakers learn to recognize such situations
and to formulate messages to respond to them.
- How do speakers know what to do in such situations? In responding to such situations,
speakers are communicating with others -- with audiences. And audiences are drawn from
cultures. Speakers and audiences share their culture. And within cultures are the various
contexts that speakers and audiences learn together and that define how to respond in
- Thus it is that one of the important sources of a speakers' power in the situations they face is
derived from the connection between speakers and audiences that comes from understanding
the various cultural contexts from which strategic discourse is fashioned.
Some Rhetorical Contexts
There are many ways that we can emphasize the linkages between speakers and audiences in
cultures. They form the structure of our study:
- Good Reasons
What they have in common is that their power rests in their cultural grounding and their
availability to contribute to the strategic power of discourse.
The notion of genre begins in a speaker's ability to recognize that the situation requiring strategic
discourse is a recurring situation. For example, we recognize the need to eulogize someone who
has died, to pay tribute to our mother, to discipline our children, to address a boss who has
abused us. We study such situations, and with more or less ability learn how it is that one "does
- Thus, commonly recognized cultural situations define audience expectations in these situations.
- Speakers placed in such situations, study them, read how speakers have responded to such
situations in the past, and from that begin to understand the strategic demands on them.
- Such generic situations may be formal -- a President's Inaugural Address -- or informal --
the need to discipline a child.
- Often as a culture we ritualize generic situations. That means that we develop elaborate ways
that speakers perform as speakers and audiences perform as audiences. Such performances
require that both speakers and audiences know their way of doing the generic moment. When
done well -- the eulogy -- the purposes of the response are accomplished and we find our
public grief more manageable.
To interpret generic situations, you must:
- appreciate the demands of the situation
- appreciate the understanding that we all have in this culture about the expectations of speaker
- and, to evaluate how well a speaker fulfills the demands of the generic situation.
Definition: A good reason is support that the public within which an audience is located
recognizes as warranting the claim offered. Literally, we encounter a good reason when we
understand a good reason for doing something.
- Good reasons are a way of talking about what sort of support warrants different
claims, grounded in our understanding of the cultural context. They are a
dimension of argument.
- Good reasons are cultural. We come to understand when we need to support
a claim, what arguments will result in our supporting the claim successfully
through a cultural analysis of our audience.
This is a good reason.
To interpret good reasons, you need to:
- understand how what are considered good reasons are culturally determined.
- based on your cultural analysis, be able to identify what reasons sufficiently
warrant such claims, and what reasons fail to do so.
Motives are clusters of terms and patterns of using the terms to talk about the experiences of
events that serve to frame understanding of, to orient a culture's values to, and to coordinate
response to the events.
A motive is:
- a cluster of terminology. Terms that go with each other in natural language.
- a pattern for interpretation of events. By using these terms one is able to shape a way to
- a framework for evaluating events. The terms have connotative meaning; they carry attitudes.
We recognize the friendly and unfriendly, the good and the evil, that we will praise and that we
will deplore, that we will embrace and that from which we will flee. This gives events a way of
our responding to them.
- authorization for, and coordinating vocabulary for proper response. The terms clustering
together provide us a language with which we perform the response. They thus give us a sense
of the proper way to respond to the situation as we have come to understand it.
- culturally practiced and valued. We learn the motives that allow us to understand and to
respond properly within out culture.
How we use motives
- to define situations
- to evaluate people and events
- to select what the proper response to events is
- to coordinate our response with others
Some common motives
- Making War
- Doing business or being a consumer
- Crime and punishment
- Being a family
Using Motives in Interpretation
- Remember that descriptions of events do not merely reproduce the event, but cast the events
into frameworks and what happened and why
- Look for alternative ways of talking about the same event, alternative frameworks that
describe the events better or worse
- Look at the connotative power that flows from the terms we use to describe a situation. See
how we find the things to praise and the things to reject in the situation. See how we begin to
shape what we fear and what we welcome.
- Look for the way in which we know how to coordinate our response to events with others as
we know how to use the motivation well.
The Value Context
"The spontaneous speech of a people is loaded with judgements. It is intensely moral -- its
names for objects contain the emotional overtones which give us the cues as to how we should act
toward these objects. [Indeed,] spontaneous speech is not a naming at all, but a system of
attitudes, of implicit exhortations." Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change
- to value: a characteristic of everyday language use through which we orient volitionally
toward the subject matter of a discourse.
- Value Framework: The framework of beliefs, judgements, and commitments of a public or
culture within which we judge and motivate action.
Notice that the noun "a value" is not part of our vocabulary here. One has to understand the act
of valuing and the framework which relates beliefs, judgements, and commitments to each other
before a notion of "a value" as a noun -- example, family values -- is more than an empty vessel
to be filled by whims of the moment.
The Value Framework
- Publics become who they are by valuing with their language as they frame judgement and
choose action. From this discourse then emerge things that are valued by the culture -- values
(as a noun).
- These values may, in fact, not always be consistent. Our culture believes both that haste makes
waste, and that a stitch in time saves nine.
- Strategic discourse orients us to people and events by naming the people and events with the
terms that capture the values of our community.
What we value
- Traits of character in people or communities: honesty, dedication.
- Commitments of our community: to achievement, taking care of the weak
- Rules of behavior: work hard, be kind.
With strategic discourse, we . . .
- celebrate values that define our community
- praise (or condemn) people or actions
- declare the things that are problems and motivate our attention
- name aspects of our experience that we believe should motivate action
- declare the acceptable ways to respond to events in our world
Cultural narratives are common sequential patterns that discourse in a culture uses to understand
and respond to the ongoing evolution of events.
- They allow us to tell the story of a given set of events in a familiar way.
- They are familiar because they are often used in our culture to explain such events.
- Their power is to make the novel events seem familiar to us.
Powers that cultural narratives have
- To order events so that we will see what we can expect to happen as time passes.
- To value the people in events.
- To place events in a broader historical perspective.
Some Common American Narratives
- The journey from a life of depravation to success
- To dream and then accomplish
- To be good and then be corrupted through exposure to evil, particularly evil people
- To be drawn into evil through greed
Myths are stories that have obtained a cultural significance and thus are available as powerful
narratives to understand events.
- Issue is not whether they are true or false. Even if we know they are untrue (George
Washington probably never chopped down that cherry tree) they carry a truth that makes them
- Their power comes from their transcending moments in history to explain major themes of the
Some Myths Used in American Discourse
- The Errand into the Wilderness. American pioneers entered a vast wild and brought the power
of civilization to it through hard work and dedication.
- The enslavement of Africans and their surviving the ordeal through their tenacity and resistance
to being dominated.
- George Washington and the Cherry Tree
- The triumph and power of technology. Technology will always solve our problems and make
our lives better. The secret of Americans is their genius for invention.
- The Good Sumaritan
Working with myths in discourse
- Learn to recognize the culturally ingrained myths that we take as a kind of truth about our
- Understand how strategic discourse call upon these myths to gain our adherence
Working with the Contexts for Strategic Discourse
- Where? Contexts lie within the cultures within which we communicate. We must recognize
them and see how they are there to be invoked in strategic discourse. We use cultural analysis of our audiences to do this.
- How? Rhetoric brings the novel into the familiar. Strategic discourse invokes these familiar
contexts, and as it does it gains its power to give us the sense of control over the situations of
- Power: The power to identify others with the strategy which we believe explains events and
defines what our response should be grows from the power of cultural and linguistic familiarity
that resides in these various contexts.