The Problem of Audience

The discussion of audience in Colvino and Jolliffe’s introduction, along with the “Audience” entry from Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, shows the difficulty in pinning down, defining, or even understanding what is meant by the term “audience.” This is a term that appears simple to understand on the surface but which can become almost incomprehensible and unknowable upon deeper examination. Like many concepts, this one has altered depending upon time and location, its conception changing ideologically alongside other cultural and epistemic shifts.

On one hand, audience can be simply defined as “the person(s) to whom the rhetor addresses an oral or written discourse,” but who are these people? (Porter 42). And are they actually “people” in the material sense, or just the idea of people?  Are they real or imaged? Addressed or invoked? Though writers, speakers, and other rhetors are often advised to “consider the audience,” how does one do this, once one begins to consider the complexities of what this term does, or can, mean?

The term “audience” was once a rather unproblematic concept, and is still used in everyday conversation as such, despite its complexities. In classical rhetoric, for instance, it ostensibly meant “a collected body of flesh-and-blood listeners assembled on a specified occasion to hear a speech” (Porter 44). Even so, though the term may have been “imagined” as such, the problems of audience definition were already beyond the scope of this imagining. Plato hints at the issues of reception in Phaedrus, decrying what can be read as a problem with audience, saying, “And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing” (Bizzell and Herzberg 166). Here, he notes that written words may be received by an unknowable audience with the potential for misunderstandings that may not occur with a “live” audience of “flesh-and-blood listeners.” In addition, he implies an understanding that different audiences may derive different meanings, a possibility he laments. Thus, though Plato does not directly address this as a problem of audience, he acknowledges this issue, as well as his anxiety about it, in his own writing. Who is that potential future audience? How will they understand written words? Can they actually understand them if they are not spoken orally, person to person?

Porter distinguished between the terms “audience” and “reader,” explaining that the former is an imagined, abstract concept, while the latter concerns “flesh-and-blood people” (43). This distinction can be furthered by categorizing “audience” as the purview of rhetoric and composition studies, whereas “reader” is a concept employed by literary critics. I found this distinction interesting, though would argue that in many cases literary critics do consider “the reader” as an abstract, imagined concept, attempting (as with considerations of audience) to construct an “ideal reader” or “general reader” of a text, whether or not such an entity actually exists. I am not sure that I can distinguish being the “reality” of an audience versus a reader – I wonder if it is more a matter of field-specific terminology preferences rather than an actual difference in conceptual perception.

From George Campbell, to information theory models, to post-modern understandings of discourse communities, notions of audience change as epistemology and ideology likewise shift. Rather than linear models of top-down transmission of ideas (akin to Freire’s “banking model” of teaching), current perceptions of audience describe complicated transactions of information between audience and rhetor, where influence and relationality are reciprocal. The rhetor is not simply a transmitter of (important, privileged) information to a passive and/or judging audience, but is him or herself partially constructed by the audience – its values, conventions, and discourse – which becomes a part of both the speaker and the spoken. Rhetorical action thus occurs in multiple directions simultaneously, where information “going out” reflections information “coming in” with both having effect upon all parties. This more dynamic, fluid perception of audience attempts to (re)construct the growing complexity and sites of rhetorical action in postmodern social environments, as well as the epistemic shift that arises from and gives rise to them.

As an instructor, what do I tell my students? “Consider your audience.” The difficulty arises when considering what, or who, or even if, that audience is.


2 comments on “The Problem of Audience

  1. It’s interesting to think about audience in terms of the upcoming presidential election. No one doubts there are “real voters” out there who will decide the election — and yet the candidates aim their remarks at different kinds of audiences at different times … to women, to the labor audience, to the elderly, to youth … they address voter categories or constructs. In their television ads, for instance, you can see the fictional audience representations they are using to persuade the real voters — e.g., the elderly women fretting about Medicare in an Obama ad is a fictional construct representing a voting bloc of millions of voters. So I would say that these rhetorical performances always involve a tension or correspondence between the real voters who will decide the election and the fictional audiences addressed by the candidates. All this to say: It helps your rhetoric to have a slightly complicated notion of audience — but not so hopelessly complicated that it can’t be taught or implemented! Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. 😉

  2. Wow, what a thoughtful blog post! This writing both provokes my thinking and comforts me in some strange way. What could be better …

    The question of reader v. audience is one I’ve been mulling over a lot lately. I appreciate your insight and honesty here:

    “I am not sure that I can distinguish being the ‘reality’ of an audience versus a reader – I wonder if it is more a matter of field-specific terminology preferences rather than an actual difference in conceptual perception.”

    I feel I’m supposed to be hammering home the concepts of audience, rhetorical situation, etc. … but in my ENG 111 I have so far avoided these terms for the first assignment and defaulted to the term “reader,” which I find incredibly useful for effective peer response.

    Part of me exclaims, “Yes! I have achieved my expressivist subversion, in accordance with my own beliefs about the practice of reflective narrative writing in a first-year composition course!” The other part of me wonders if I’m subscribing to some outdated, old-timey Humanistic view that there is such a thing as a “reader” and depriving the students of a more sophisticated awareness of audience. (Don’t worry, I’ll tackle audience next week, promise …)

    Also, your writing here very much echoes my thinking today:

    “As an instructor, what do I tell my students? ‘Consider your audience.’ The difficulty arises when considering what, or who, or even if, that audience is.”

    I cannot resist the term “reader.” Am I a bad rhetorician?

    I cannot deny the fact that they workshop their writing with other real human beings sitting next to them … I would refer to these humans as “readers” …

    But the question really is, as Porter writes in “Audience”: “When in the composing process should concern for audience begin?”

    I find it a difficult question to answer.

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