6 Rhetorical Situation, Exigence, and Kairos

Kate Mele, PhD

Often when we are given an assignment, we are asked to assess our rhetorical situation:  What is my purpose? Who is my audience? What type of text will achieve my purpose for my audience?  What is the social context within which my text will circulate?   But, according to rhetorical theorist Lloyd F. Bitzer,  there is no rhetorical situation without exigence as its source.

Exigence, simply defined, means that we are pressed to speak or write. There’s a sense of urgency that comes when we experience exigence. For instance, you get a high grade on an exam you thought you blew, and you want to tell someone. Your exuberance over the grade becomes a driving force—an exigence—for contacting your best friend.  And thus, your rhetorical situation emerges: your purpose (to share good news); your audience (your best friend); your document (a text that conforms to the conventions of text-messaging, including an emoji); the social context (you and your best friend always share good news with each other before anyone else).  The text message—something we do every day without thinking—has a source, like a river has a source.  The river has to start somewhere just as the text message had to spring from somewhere. As in the case with this example of sharing good news with your friend, exigence is at the source of any rhetorical situation.

The concept of exigence gets a little more complicated when applied to professional and public writing. In these settings, we typically feel it is necessary to speak or write in light of a pressing business or social problem. For example, the coronavirus pandemic: a problem of public health, economics, policy and politics. Many people have had their say about these problems. Politicians have weighed in on policy; scientists and healthcare workers on the medical side; economists and CEOs on the financial ramifications; food activists on the precarity of our agriculture and meat industries; religious leaders on freedom to worship; and citizens on civic rights, social inequalities, and changes to our daily lives. All these various responses are both powerful and difficult to evaluate because of the emotions impacting so many of us during the crisis. But our varied emotional reactions to the pandemic do not qualify as exigence. While exigence is emotionally and intellectually visceral, it arises from discourse, in other words, from a conversation about a specific aspect of a problem. So what’s the difference between having a reaction to a circumstance and experiencing the exigence to speak or write? How do we find our exigence?

Discovering exigence is similar to narrowing a subject to a topic.  Management may be your subject, but if your professor assigned you a paper in a Management course and said write about anything, your paper wouldn’t be about management.  You would to narrow the subject, say, to arts management or sports management—but even that would be too broad because many people have already written on these areas of your major. Once you start reading what they’ve said about the type of management you’re interested in, your ideas begin to click.  That clicking is your exigence bubbling up.  Writer A has said this, and Writer B has said that, but neither of them has addressed the ideas clicking in your imagination.  You see a gap in the discussion that you can fill.  The recognition of this gap is your exigence.  Your topic, by necessity, fills the gap: it satisfies your exigence. From that point on, you can assess your rhetorical situation.

It may be hard to imagine having our own exigence because typically our instructors have already set some parameters—a topic, a purpose, an audience.  But, as I’ve just explained, our inquiry will lead us to find what we can contribute to the problem at hand. By reading what others have said, we might see there is something missing in the way they have described the problem, or we see a misstep in their reasoning, or their evidence doesn’t hold up that well.  It’s likely we will see a gap we feel the need to fill.  Maybe we have an alternative solution.  Maybe we think the problem should be reframed.  Maybe the record needs to be set straight. These types of speculations can help us pin down our exigence.

When discovering our exigence, we also have to consider the element of timeliness, or kairos.  In addition to paying attention to a gap that urgently needs to be filled in the discourse surrounding a problem, we must ask ourselves about the window of opportunity to write or speak now. Let’s go back to the coronavirus pandemic to see how exigence and kairos work together to bring forth a rhetorical situation.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many companies immediately reshaped their messaging:  as a result of an urgency (exigence) and timeliness (kairos), they assured us that doing business with them was safe. Amazon, for example, didn’t have to think about their customers’ health before, but now they do.  In effect, there was a gap in their messaging (their discourse) that needed to be filled.  It’s evident that someone in the organization asked how the public could be sure all those packages arriving on doorsteps would not spread the virus. Someone evidently replied, “A television ad.” And we’ve seen it: A well-timed campaign that shows workers in masks preparing orders at safe, social distances and a Prime airline pilot standing near her plane as boxes of masks designated for the workers are being loaded.  Those in the Amazon organization responsible for that messaging performed a quintessential rhetorical act.  They recognized that the company’s exigence was compounded by the need for right timing, and from there made choices based on the emergent rhetorical situation: purpose (to assure customers that the warehouses are virus-free);  audience (an anxious public under stay-at-home orders); text (a television ad including assuring visuals); social context (televisions kept on 24/7 as the public waits out the pandemic).  Amazon could have created a different ad, but this one addressed both a business and social problem that mattered—keeping the company productive, keeping people in their jobs, keeping the public as safe as possible.

These are the very steps you are likely to take as writers in your professional lives and serving the needs of the public. To reiterate, when you locate what you believe to be urgent for the given time, you have a rhetorical situation: you can refine your purpose, figure out who your argument impacts the most, and decide on the best type of text to reach readers who have the power to make the change you seek and under what conditions. Think of it this way: exigence and kairos are the fuel that drives our rhetorical choices forward.


Work Cited

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


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Introduction to Professional and Public Writing Copyright © 2020 by Kate Mele, PhD is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.