Context Worksheet

Context is a funny concept in rhetoric, because it can drastically change both the meaning and the effectiveness of any argument, or it can almost no effect on the argument. It all depends on what new information is given by the context, and how that information interacts with the argument itself. Context is, put simply information about the argument. That’s very broad, so let me get into specifics. Generally, when looking at context, we ask ourselves these questions: Who made the argument? When was it made? and Who was it made for? These questions then divide into sub-questions, and in those we’ll get into some examples.

When was it made?

In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” there is a question among the readers as toward whether or not Jig would get an abortion, and many metaphors within the text point toward either decision. However, one aspect of the story seems to tell a very distinct story: the alcohol. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is a very serious condition, resulting in a “mix of physical defects, intellectual or cognitive disabilities, and problems functioning and coping with daily life” (Mayo Clinic par. 4), and if Jig was regularly consuming alcoholic beverages, then it’s clear that she must have not cared about her baby’s life, which means that she was going to abort the baby. However, this story was written in 1927, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome wasn’t discovered until 1973 (Armstrong and Abel par. 1), which means Jig couldn’t have known about it and, indeed, Hemingway himself couldn’t have known about it. Therefore, it is exceedingly unlikely that Hemingway included this metaphor in his short story in order to show that Jig was going to have an abortion. More likely, he included it because he was an alcoholic, and talked about it whenever he could (Yeah, take that, Hemingway. Come at me!). Ideas and values change as the years go by, and if we want to analyze an argument with its full context, we need to understand what the world knew and believed when it was written. Analyzing ancient or outdated ideas through a modern lens of understanding without any consideration for the original context is a sure path to ineffective analysis.

Who was it made for? The audience of a work can drastically change a piece’s meaning. In Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain,” we saw how, if the song were written to a fictional male or female, the song would be about her desire to be in a relationship with that person even though she takes a lot of emotional pain in the chase. Her audience would then be that person, and the Main Claim would be for that person to love her. However, once we understood that the person she was singing to was Chris Brown, a man who physically abused her, the music became a lot more literal. When she said things like “you love when I fall apart so you can put me together and throw me against the wall” (stanza 1), and that his love “beats her black and blue” (stanza 3), we now understand them as literal. This changes her argument. It goes from one about trying to convince a man or woman to love her to one about her warning her audience about the dangers of staying in an abusive relationship because one is “in love” with one’s abuser. It’s a warning to learn from her example, and to get out while one still can. Just by changing the subject from abstract to literal, and the audience from her supposed lover to us, the entire argument changes.

Who made the argument? This is a large part of context, because so much of Ethos is dependent on the author him or herself. What the author has done in his or her life has a large effect on Ethos appeals, and what the author meant by the text is vitally important to understanding and then analyzing the Logos appeals of a text. Lastly, authors have the ability to incredibly enhance or undermine the emotional power of their own works through what they have done outside of them. Finding out who authors were, how they lived their lives, and what their original intent for the work was can vastly change an argument. Conversely, for many of the readings we will do in this class, the authors’ identities will have very little impact on the argument itself, save perhaps to establish him or herself as an authority on the topic.

Let’s give an example of how the author of an argument can change the perception of the argument. Here is also where you can get some practice in analyzing how context can change an argument.

But the problem is, these people can’t talk about their feelings because they know that they will be hated for it. I truly do believe that every person is longing for love at some point in their life. And what if this love that you really wish for will forever be impossible? That must be a really lonely situation to be in. It’s like telling me, “we know that you love your boyfriend, and we don’t minimize that love, however you cannot act out on it, ever. And on top of that, you won’t be able to talk about it with anyone.” (van der Buggen 5:48-6:17)

So let’s begin the analysis of this argument in a vacuum of context. This is an argument based on the Rule of Justice, isn’t it? It is saying that people should be able to love who they want to love, in the same way that other people can. It is attempting to get the audience to Identify with the people in question. Would they consider it fair if their love was forbidden, and they were refused the right to act on it or openly discuss it? If not, and these situations are similar, then they would have to consider it unfair to keep these people from being accepted in society. This is a Syllogism, obviously. Logically, it is saying that you want to your love to be accepted, and all love is equal, so therefore you should accept their love as well. Ask yourself the questions we’ve been going over for analysis. Do the Reasonings support the Claim? How well do they create and support the Syllogism? How well do the Rhetorical Strategies support the Syllogism? What emotion is the author attempting to evoke within the reader? How strongly do they create these emotions? How do the emotions guide the reader toward the Claim? Are the emotions strong enough to overcome any weaknesses in the logic? Explain your claims.

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