Lecture: Bazerman’s “Changing the Landscape: Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts”

In “Changing the Landscape: Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts,” chapter 5 of A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, Charles Bazerman examines the role of social facts and speech acts in relationship to each other and to kairos.

Social Facts

Social facts, he explains, are things that people believe to be true with the consequences of those beliefs shaping our social and material conditions (67). Regardless of whether or not social facts have basis in objective reality, the belief in those facts shape how we interact in and with our reality. For example, the theory of humors dominated Western medicine from the antiquity through the 19th Century. In short, the theory of humors stipulates that the workings of the human body are governed by four bodily fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Working under the theory of humors, Western doctors practiced bloodletting and applying hot cups to patients bodies to treat various ailments under the belief that illness was the result of a body’s humors out of proportion. The theory of humors was a social fact.

Speech Acts

Speech acts, Bazerman tells us, are utterances — oral or written language acts — that have an effect on the world (67). Bazerman uses the example of an electric bill as an example of a speech act. The bill — a written utterance — has an effect on the world in that it represents a legal obligation of payment for services and goods (in this case, electricity) by the person who has been billed. Other common examples of speech acts are the various statements made during a marriage ceremony in which the couple each agrees to the marriage (typically through the words “I do”), and in which the officiate declares the couple now married. Other examples of speech acts include a rejection or acceptance letter, or a trial verdict, or an investigative commission reports such as The 9/11 Commission Report and the  Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, both of which identified blame for the incidents investigated that in turn led to policy changes.

As Bazerman suggests, not all utterances are speech acts. First, speech acts are utterances that are both unmistakable in nature and which can’t be readily ignored by reasonably minded people, a fact which in turn means that they “change the mental landscape for action” (67). Furthermore, drawing from the J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, Bazerman explains that for an utterance to be a speech act it must meet certain “felicity conditions” (68). That is, the person performing the speech act must have the authority to make such an utterance, they must be making the utterance under the appropriate conditions, and they must be making it in the appropriate venue. For example, in most jurisdictions in the US, you can’t simply declare yourself married. You must instead find someone with the legal authority to marry you. Furthermore, a person with such legal authority can’t simply pronounce two people married. The couple must consent to the marriage, usually before witnesses, and the appropriate paperwork must be filled out and submitted to the appropriate legal authorities. And, likewise, while a judge might have the legal authority to perform a wedding, the judge’s legal authority only applies to a certain jurisdiction regardless of whether or not the couple consent and the appropriate paper work is submitted. (For instance, a South Carolina judge has no legal authority to wed a couple in Canada.)

Successful speech acts, Bazerman notes, become social facts (67).

The Role of Exigency

Bazerman begins this chapter arguing that in order to properly situate a text we need to consider not just its location in time and space (both its physical space and its activity system) but also its exigency, that is, the reason or motive behind its creation. As Bazerman notes this concern for exigency brings us back to Lloyd Bizter and the rhetorical situation, which we’ve encountered earlier in Prelli’s discussion of rhetoric as situated discourse, which Bazerman summarizes as “an exigent solution marked by an imperfection that can be corrected by language” (65).

Exigency is important, Bazerman explains, because communication is most effective when both the rhetor and the audience have shared material and social experiences that connect them to the exigency of the rhetorical act, that is, when they have shared experiences that gives them both reasons to care about the issue and a need for a solution (66).

Exigency in Face-to-Face Situations

Because of the embodied nature of face-to-face situations in which all parties are present within the same immediate material and social conditions, that is, they are right there together in the thick of things, face-to-face communication often has embedded within it stronger connections to exigency than written communication does because the speaker and audience exist together at that moment in shared material and social conditions in ways that a writer and reader can not (71-72). This shared connection to exigency typically  offers rhetors easier access to speaking kairotically — that is, of making use of kairos.

Kairos in Intertext

While face-to-face communication may present rhetors with greater access to kairos, Bazerman explains that intertextual spaces do develop their own sense of kairos (72-75). For example, both written job ads or RFPs (Request for Proposals) offer kairotic possibilities in that there is an appropriate time to act and there is an appropriate measure in how one should act. Likewise, an email asking for a report or a job or school assignment with its deadline also offer kairotic possibilities in just the same way.

While the kairotic nature of those examples may be readily obvious, kairotic possibilities in contexts less governed by constraints of time and form. Consider, for example, the question of a research project. As explained in the lecture on intertextuality, research is inherently intertextual in that research is an act of knowledge making and the formal avenues of sharing knowledge in our culture is through writing. When choosing to start a new research project we have before us some two-thousand or more years of written knowledge from which to start formulating our questions and hypothesis. While it might be entirely appropriate for a philosophy postdoc focus their research on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, there are very few if any conditions under which it would be appropriate for a chemistry, biology, or physics postdoc to base their research on Aristotle’s Physics.

We also find the question of kairos inherent in the question of when the public, or even experts, are receptive to new theories. We’re all familiar of the notion that some ideas are expressed before their time, and many of you are familiar with independent co-discoveries or near co-discoveries of scientific principles. (If nothing else, in “The Polemical Mr. Darwin” Campbell explains that Darwin hurried his work on to publication because Alfred Wallace’s own field work had led Wallace to independently develop his own theory of natural selection.) Breakthroughs in knowledge often happen because previous discoveries, new methods, and or new technologies make the leap in knowledge possible. This too is an issue of kairos within the domain of intertext. [1] 1. For a quick summary of accumulation of ideas that lead to Darwin and Wallace’s discovery of natural selection, including Darwin’s own grandfather’s ideas, see … Continue reading

Along these same lines, we might also note Albert Einstein’s resistance to quantum mechanics made famous in his debates with Niels Bohr. Despite the fact that Einstein’s own work helped pave the way, Einstein was committed to Aristotle’s Laws of Thought which understood the world as static and unchanging, a social fact that remained in place for some 2,000 years until the development of quantum mechanics. While scientists like Bohr readily accepted quantum mechanics, it was at the time of the debates an idea whose time was coming into being. From within the system of social belief in Aristotle’s Laws of Thought, the idea of quantum mechanics is easier to accept after Einstein published his articles on Relativity than before because Relativity itself challenges the Laws of Thought. [2] 1. It’s telling just how deeply held a social fact the Laws of Thought were when Einstein refused to accept that his own work called the Laws into question.


1 1. For a quick summary of accumulation of ideas that lead to Darwin and Wallace’s discovery of natural selection, including Darwin’s own grandfather’s ideas, see “Pre-Darwinian Theories.”
2 1. It’s telling just how deeply held a social fact the Laws of Thought were when Einstein refused to accept that his own work called the Laws into question.