What We Talk About When We Talk About “Exigence”

“Exigence” is a term that has recently become common in discussions of rhetoric and composition. It appears in the influential book Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak as a term for transfer. ERWC has introduced it as a concept in the newest version of the curriculum (ERWC 3.0), and it is used in numerous articles about teaching reading and writing. In this long post I will outline the history of this concept and the conversation it has provoked over many decades.

Note: If you just want a handful of questions to help your students use this concept, perhaps without using the term itself, skip to the end of this post.

“The Rhetorical Situation”

“Exigence” was introduced into the conversation of the discipline of rhetoric and composition by Lloyd Bitzer in his article “The Rhetorical Situation” published in the inaugural issue of the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric in 1968. Bitzer defines the rhetorical situation as having three components: the exigence that initiates the need for discourse, the audience to be moved to decision and action, and the “constraints which influence the rhetor and can be brought to bear upon the audience” (6).

Bitzer defines “exigence” as “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be” (6). This definition is not the ordinary one. Dictionaries note that the adjective “exigent” means “demanding” and comes from the Latin exigere, which means “to demand.” The noun form is generally “exigency” and is usually in the plural, such as “the exigencies of war,” which could be rendered as “the demands of war.” These usages go back to the 15th century. The word “exigence” is more common in French than in English. As in English, it tends to to refer to a demand, either from a person or from a situation.

Going back to Bitzer’s definition, we could note the value judgments and ask, “Imperfect or defective by whose standards?” and “Other than it should be by whose judgment?” For Bitzer, the urgent “imperfection” is a disturbance in the way the true world ought to be. If there is a “demand,” for Bitzer the scene is making it.

An example: Let’s say there is a big pothole in the street in front of your house. You are worried that it will cause an accident, or damage your car, so you write an email to the city maintenance department asking them to send a crew to fix it. In a nutshell, that is Bitzer’s rhetorical situation.

Bitzer’s purpose in writing the article is to make a distinction between “rhetorical discourse” and non-rhetorical discourse. He says, “An exigence which cannot be modified is not rhetorical; thus, whatever comes about of necessity and cannot be changed — death, winter, and some natural disasters, for instance — are exigences to be sure, but they are not rhetorical” (6-7).

Bitzer argues by this logic that scientific and poetic discourse are not rhetorical because “neither requires an audience in order to produce its end; the scientist can produce a discourse expressive or generative of knowledge without engaging another mind, and the poet’s creative purpose is accomplished when the work is composed” (8). He acknowledges that scientists and poets have audiences, but that these are not “rhetorical” audiences because they are not capable of “making the change that the discourse functions to produce” (8).

If this strikes you as odd, it is because it is common these days to argue that all discourse is rhetorical, making such a peculiar distinction moot. However, this article started a conversation, mostly in the same journal, that was more about defining “the rhetorical situation” than about making distinctions between “rhetorical” and non-rhetorical discourse. Bitzer’s article had clearly made an impression and elevated the concept of “exigence” to rhetorical prominence.

After Bitzer

Bitzer has had many critics. In “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation” Richard E. Vatz asks “What is the relationship between rhetoric and situations?” and responds

I take the converse position of each of Bitzer’s major statements regarding this relationship. For example: I would not say “rhetoric is situational,” but situations are rhetorical; not “. . . exigence strongly invites utterance,” but utterance strongly invites exigence; not “the situation controls the response . . .” but the rhetoric controls the situational response; not “. . . rhetorical discourse . . . does obtain its character-as-rhetorical from the situation which generates it,” but situations obtain their character from the rhetoric which surrounds them or creates them. (158-59)

From Vatz’s point of view, the “exigence” is not found in the situation, but is constructed by the the rhetor through the way he or she defines the situation.

It is no accident that this conversation is largely occurring in a journal called Philosophy and Rhetoric. Beyond Vatz’s question about the relationship between rhetoric and situations is a question about how language constitutes the world.

In fact, the way this conversation has unfolded over decades in that journal was not so much about scholars disagreeing about how to define “the rhetorical situation,” but more about scholars inhabiting different world views. Bitzer is a Platonist and a realist. There is a real world and it makes us do things. Vatz is a social constructivist whose world is mostly cultural and manipulable by rhetoric. Scott Consigny, in “Rhetoric and Its Situations,” takes the position of a scholar of classical rhetoric who focuses on practical matters, and argues that “The real question in rhetorical theory is not whether the situation or the rhetor is “dominant,” but the extent, in each case, to which the rhetor can discover and control indeterminate matter, using his art of topics to make sense of what would otherwise remain simply absurd” (185).

Postmodern and Posthuman Readings

In “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of ‘Différance'” Barbara Biesecker performs a postmodernist reading that sees the world as a text and the rhetor making a cut that constitutes a speaker-audience-world relation. Diane Davis,  in “Rhetoricity at the End of the World,” provides a summary of the conversation about the rhetorical situation up to that point and, building on Biesecker, expands that view to include non-human participants and even non-human languages, such as DNA, chemical reactions, and physical forces. In this perspective, we take into account not only the pothole and the city maintenance department, but also the nature of the asphalt, the rain, temperature fluctuations, and the passing vehicles that caused the pothole to appear.

Another example: let’s imagine that a pair of birds has decided to build a nest in the housing that protects the red light in a traffic signal (I have actually seen this). The go, slow, stop of the traffic light’s sign system is easily interpreted by almost all humans, but meaningless to birds. The birds have read other aspects of the situation to indicate a well-protected nesting site of the appropriate height and size. In fact, the location and design of the traffic light may have seemed to be an invitation to build.  However, their exigence, the demand of instinct to build a nest and the invitation to build one, is in conflict with the human exigence in installing the traffic light, the desire to control traffic flow in a safe and convenient way. As the traffic light continues in its mindless signifying, the nest may in fact block the view of the red light and cause an accident. The perspective Davis adopts would see all of this as connected and rhetorical, without privileging the human point of view.

What About the Classroom?

But you may be asking, “How is this useful for teaching reading and writing?” It is always perilous to move from philosophy to pedagogy. Let’s see what we can do.

As I see it, the concept of rhetorical exigence splits one question, “Why am I writing?” into two: “What moves me to write?” and “What am I trying to accomplish by writing?” These are productive questions for students because of all the time they have spent in academic settings where the “exigence” for writing comes from the assignment and the demand of the teacher. It is time for them to see that the real world often demands writing. For the same reason, it is time for them to understand that audiences other than teachers exist, audiences that have needs and characteristics that must often be researched, recognized, or intuited. Writing is an act that occurs in a context and has purposes and audiences.

Do we need the term “exigence” to teach this? It is probably handier for philosophers and theoretical rhetoricians than for students. Many of the people using the term as part of this rhetorical conversation have lost the connection to “demand” that is implicit in the Latin root and common usage in English. Bitzer himself sees the term as more important for rhetorical analysis than for the production of discourse, for he says

The exigence may or may not be perceived clearly by the rhetor or other persons in the situation; it may be strong or weak depending upon the clarity of their perception and the degree of their interest in it; it may be real or unreal depending on the facts of the case; it may be important or trivial; it may be such that discourse can completely remove it, or it may persist in spite of repeated modifications; it may be completely familiar — one of a type of exigences occurring frequently in our experience — or it may be totally new, unique. When it is perceived and when it is strong and important, then it constrains the thought and action of the perceiver who may respond rhetorically if he is an a position to do so. (7)

In other words, plenty of discourse happens in the real world without anyone perceiving or thinking about exigence. Would we write more effectively if we thought about it? Perhaps. If we want students to use concepts related to exigence without being confused by the term itself, we might have them ask

  • What aspect of the situation calls out for change?
  • Who could help bring about this change?
  • What factors in the situation (both in the world and in the audience) do I need to consider in making my case for change?
  • How can I persuade this audience to work toward this change?

I think that these questions will help students explore the concept of “exigence” no matter what world view or philosophical perspective we take up.

Works Cited

Biesecker, Barbara A. “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of ‘Différance.'” Philosophy and Rhetoric vol. 22, no. 2, 1989, pp. 110-130.

Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 1, no. 1, 1968, pp. 1-14.

Consigny, Scott. “Rhetoric and Its Situations.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 7, no. 3, 1974, pp. 175-186.

Davis, Diane. “Rhetoricity at the End of the World.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol 50, no. 4, 2017.

Vatz, Richard. E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 6, no. 3, 1973, pp. 154-161.

Yancy, Kathleen, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Logan, UT: Utah State Univ. Press, 2014.

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