revisiting the rhetorical situation

(We’re [re]reading Bitzer and Vatz for our 602 course on teaching composition. I wrote about these articles before here)

In “The Rhetorical Situation,” Lloyd Bitzer makes an interesting statement about utopia:

In the best of all possible worlds, there would be communication perhaps, but no rhetoric — since exigences would not arise. In our real world, however, rhetorical exigences abound; the world really invites change — change conceived and effected by human agents who quite properly address a mediating audience. (13)

The other day I was standing outside of Webster’s (local coffee shop) talking to a complete stranger about the awful weather. We both agreed that winter made spring and summer more enjoyable, that without the suffering of winter, wonderful weather would not be so sweet. She relayed to me a story she heard about a man who died and went on to the afterlife. He was offered everything he wanted, and so he asked for a great mansion, a swimming pool, all the wonderful amenities. And then he realized he was not happy, that “perfect” was not a good life. And then he asked why he was given this afterlife, and the answer, “Don’t you realize, you are in hell?” I’m not telling the story well, and it wasn’t told to me well either, but the point is, of course, that a life with no problems is actually not so perfect after all. And as I think about Bitzer’s quick rumination on a perfect world, one without rhetoric, I think about how this isn’t a perfect world, because it’s not a human world. Humans are interpretive, meaning-making beings, and a world without problems means, fundamentally, a world without meaning making. A world without rhetoric, without persuasion and meaning-making, means a world without interpretation and interpretive differences. It sounds awful.

This relates to Vatz’s major critique of Bitzer. Bitzer’s claim is, briefly, that “the situation calls the discourse into existence” (2), or “[r]hetorical discourse is called into existence by situation” (9). Vatz critiques Bitzer’s article for being realist, for claiming that the situation can be objectively observed and responded to. Vatz’s view (and I concur) is that “meaning is not intrinsic in events, facts, people, or ‘situations’ nor are facts ‘publicly observable'” (“The Myth” 156). Discourse is an interpretive act, not an act of mere observation, and “meaning is not discovered in situations, but created by rhetors” (157). In short, a rhetorical act creates the situation and exigence. For instance, “Political crises [. . .] are rarely ‘found,’ they are usually created” (159). Bitzer uses the example of pollution — that the fact of pollution, the situation, calls for rhetoric to respond to the exigence. But as Vatz argues, it is our interpretation of pollution through rhetoric that creates situations and exigences. For Vatz, “This may be the sine qua non of rhetoric: the art of linguistically or symbolically creating salience” (160).

Vatz has since returned to the rhetorical situation, most recently in “The Mythical Status of Situational Rhetoric: Implications for Rhetorical Critics’ Relevance in the Public Arena.” He argues that most rhetoric scholars have been using Bitzer’s vision of the rhetorical situation in their scholarship, and that this has been a detriment to rhetoric and rhetoric’s (as a scholarly field) standing in public arenas. Because rhetoricians have been focusing on observing the situation, on a realist approach to epistemology, rhetoricians “end up becoming second-class citizens” because they are competing with scholars who “have more bona fide credentials to be able to sort out reality: political scientists, historians, journalists, etc.” By focusing on how discourse creates “reality,” rather than how reality creates discourse, Vatz believes rhetoricians will not only have better scholarship, but also have more ethos in public arenas.

I’m not sure how much I buy Vatz’s recent view. It’s something that I want to think about more. I think his portrayal of the field is a bit simplistic — I would have loved to see examples discussed — and perhaps he is focusing more on Comm Studies than Comp Studies, and I am not very familiar with Comm Studies scholarship. I don’t know. Also, I think the view here of public arenas could be played out a bit more. I do think he is right when he claims that political pundits, journalists, and the public have picked up on how discourse creates situations, evidenced by the use of terms such as “spin,” “agenda,” and “framing.” Some things to be thinking about…

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1.1. (Jan. 1968): 1-14.

Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 6.3 (1973): 154-161.

—. “The Mythical Status of the Situational Rhetoric: Implications for Rhetorical Critics’ Relevance in the Public Arena.” The Review of Communication 9.1 (Jan. 2009): 1-5.

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  1. Pingback: Readings and Activities for January 28, 2009 « Rhetoric 842 at Rutgers Camden

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