Lecture: Bazerman’s “Text Strategics”

In “Text Strategics,” chapter 7 of A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, Charles Bazerman discusses a number of strategic questions we need to consider in order to produce acts of effective communication. While the purpose of this chapter is to highlight a number of strategic questions and issues one must engage in order to be rhetorically effective, they all lead us to the overarching question of “how you can best populate the intertextual landscape with new objects to gain influence you hope for, to meet your own interests, needs, concerns, or creative visions” (98).

Influence Instead of Persuasion

Bazerman begins the chapter by suggesting that we regard the goal of rhetoric to be that of gaining influence rather than of persuading others to our point of view (87). As he notes, the goal of persuasion is to get others to change their mind and reject their current thinking or point of view for the one we are advocating. To seek influence, on the other hand, is to seek  to get others to act or respond to our utterance or action regardless of whether or not they agree or disagree with what we have said (87). This distinction is important, he suggests, because often times we’re actually not seeking to change someone’s mind.

Strategic Writing

Bazerman argues that if we think of the goal rhetoric as seeking influence rather than persuasion, then we can think of rhetoric strategy as shaping the landscape in which further discussion and action takes place. It examines the “unfolding social situation” in which discourse is taking place or will take place and examines the effect a “symbolic intervention” (your contribution) might have in shaping future activity within that social space (88).

In order to do this, we need to play as much attention to who is observing the unfolding social situation as to who is actively engaged and what they are saying (88). This helps us determine the kind of act we wish to perform in order to meet our goals (88), which in turn requires us to determine the conditions under which our chosen act will be successful.

Most Writing Is Ordinary Rather than Contentious

As noted above, the reason why Bazerman suggests that we think of the goal of rhetoric as influence rather than persuasion is that most situations in which we make use of writing are rather mundane and do not involve arguing or changing other peoples’ minds — an act, as Bazerman notes, is rather hard to do because people are often strongly committed to long-held beliefs (89). When we send a text message letting a friend know that we are running late, when we fill out a form to open an account or enroll in a program, when we offer a suggestion of compromise in order to move forward, when we put together a progress report, even when we write a letter of transmittal to accompany a submitted journal article, we are not writing to persuade but to carry out “mutually agreed upon activities” in which we work with others to create new social facts rather than displace old ones (90). In other words, most writing isn’t contentious but is instead rather ordinary in its purpose and goals.

While this is the case, Bazerman does note that some activity systems — some social situations — are often based on contentious debate with the intent of changing minds. Three such arenas, Bazerman explains, are the courts, legislative bodies, and scientific disciplines (89). In such systems, he tells us, we find established processes and procedures governing how we go about changing minds or coming to consensus: established standards of evidence, methods of analysis, and rules for decision making (89).

Topoi: The Places of Thinking and Reasoning

Another issue of strategic concern for us as we seek to engage in effective communication is the question of which kinds of information, reasoning, and sentiments are appropriate to the situation at hand. This question, Bazerman explains, is governed by the classical concept of topoi, which means “places” (91). Topoi, Bazerman tells us, are places within a text, governed by the genre and its related social activities, where connections to the outside world might be made, including other texts (91). Drawing from Aristotle (see the topoi link above), the topoi are sometimes referred to as the “topics of invention” because they can serve as places from which to develop ideas. For instance, among the “common topics” Aristotle includes defining an issue or subject, or dividing an issue into its constituent parts, or drawing upon the testimony of witnesses or documents; and among the “special topics” Aristotle suggests framing an issue in terms of what is just and unjust, or what is worthy and unworthy, or what is noble and base. (For a list, see the topics of invention link above.)

In Bazerman’s example of parents enrolling their child in school, we find a discussion about the need to provide back-up documents supporting the information filled out on the form: “The form requires the parents to visit each of the appropriate places and bring back the relevant token of that reality. Further, there needs to be confirmation of those indexed realities, which is often intertextual, requiring back-up documents, such as a birth certificate, vaccination certificate, and proof of address” (92). In this way, each field in the form, each required piece of information, is itself a “place” within the genre of the school enrollment form —the written information represents a reality in the outside world — and we have established “places” to turn to in order to represent and document the validity of the information we produce (birth certificates, etc.).

As part of thinking about the topoi, Bazerman offers four additional strategic questions regarding places which ask us to think about “the places you enter and stand on along with the places you bring in as part of your speech act” (92). They are:

The Places You Decide to Enter or not Enter

Among the strategic questions we must consider are whether or not we want to assert a presence within an activity system. In our day to day experience, we are bombarded with opportunities to engage in discussions, express our opinions, opt in or out of systems and organizations, etc. But just because we have an opinion on the topic at hand or have an interest in the work of an activist organization or live within an organization does not mean that we want to make our presence known by expressing our opinion or joining the organization or registering our activities with the local authorities (be they a fellow member of your team, a work supervisor, or a government official). Whether or not we should assert our presence is a strategic decision (93-94).

The Places You Want to Inhabit, Act, Take a Stand on, or Be Noticed

If we decide that we do wish to assert our presence, our next strategic question has to do with choosing the appropriate  place and moment so that we assert our presence effectively. In short, we need to think strategically about kairos. It doesn’t matter how wonderful our proposal is if we send it a month after the deadline or if we send it to an organization that has no desire or ability to fund our project. Likewise, it doesn’t matter how well thought out and informed our opinion is or how brilliant our solution is if we express it long after anyone cares about the issue (94-95).

The Kind of Action You Wish to Take and the Presence You Want to Establish

As we consider the most appropriate place in which to make our presence felt, we also need to consider the kind of action we wish to make and plan that action strategically. For example, are we seeking to participate, to challenge what has come before, derail or support what others have done, or even denounce the entire system? The kind of action we wish to take will define the genres available to us. For example, if we wanted to challenge what a campus organization was doing, we might ask the group for evidence to support their claims, we might write a letter to the school newspaper or hold a rally intended to sway public opinion, or we might establish a counter organization. And just as the kind of action we wish to takes defines the genres that we might use, the genres we choose will define the ways in which our presence will be felt within the activity system (95-96). In order to effectively establish a presence through our chosen action, we need to consider each of these issues.

The Resources You Want to Draw Into Your Space

The last strategic question Bazerman addresses is that of the resources upon which we wish to support our actions and to which we wish to connect ourselves and our activities. As you know, the source of our facts matter as much as the facts themselves. No amount of evidence is going to be effective if the source of that evidence is entirely unreliable. In fact, factually true evidence taken from a thoroughly unreliable source will often be called into question because it is from an unreliable source under the logic that if it were true then it should also be available from a reliable source (98).

While we must strategically think about where we are getting the resources we bring to bear as we act, we also need to strategically think about the resources — organizations and the like — to which we affiliate ourselves and whether or not we make those affiliations known (98). For instance, as many political watchdog groups have pointed out, many of the US Representatives and Senators who strongly opposed Net Neutrality were individuals who received huge ongoing campaign donations from companies that opposed Net Neutrality while many politicians who supported Net Neutrality did not receive such funding. Whether or not these politicians who opposed Net Neutrality really believed that it was not in their constituents best interest, the fact that they were so closely affiliated with the corporations that would profit from Net Neutrality being defeated has led many people to suggest that their opposition has everything to do with who funds their campaigns rather than what is in the best interest of the voters they are supposed to represent. Likewise, it is for this very reason that it is common practice for academic research scientists to identify the funding for their research or for a news organization such as National Public Radio to identify their corporate sponsors. Who we affiliate ourselves with and whether or not we make that affiliation known will affect how others perceive our actions. While a specific affiliation might make us suspect in certain rhetorical situations, discovery that we’ve kept such an affiliation hidden can have a far worse effect than making that affiliation known.