The Mythical Status of Situational

Rhetoric: Implications for Rhetorical

Critics’ Relevance in the Public Arena

 

Richard E. Vatz  

 

The Review of Communication

Vol. 9, No. 1, January 2009, pp. 1-5

 

 

Thirty-five years ago I argued that portraying rhetoric as the inexorable result of real

situational demands, as opposed to competitive persuasion, creating perceptions of

situational demands, would relegate the field to secondary disciplinary status and ethical

irrelevance. Since then, this prediction has been largely fulfilled, but a change in

perspective can make rhetoric a primary study with ethical significance.

 

Keywords: Rhetoric; Persuasion; Political Commentary; Responsibility; Salience;

Meaning; Agenda; Spin; Framing

 

     Thirty-five years after I wrote ‘‘The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation’’ (1973) and 40

years after Lloyd Bitzer wrote ‘‘The Rhetorical Situation’’ (1968), I thought this might

be a propitious moment to reflect on some important academic implications of those

two articles.

 

     This article of reflection is not meant to be yet another refinement of the

arguments therein, but instead an overview of what the implications of this seminal

clash in perspectives have meant to the field of rhetoric’s view of the relationship

between situations and rhetoric and the study of persuasion. This is also the title of a

course, “Persuasion,” that I have successfully taught and which has been the focus of

many teaching awards for about 35 years. I should add, parenthetically, that this

dispute has significantly informed the three areas of personal expertise on which I

have written, consulted, and commented in media for decades: political rhetoric,

psychiatric rhetoric, and media criticism.

 

     My purpose is to explore an omnipresent concept in life: the choice of what we

talk about and the choices of what it means -- that has critical importance to

rhetorical practice. In Plato’s day, whether one sided with Plato or the Sophists was

not an idle matter, of importance only to the intellectuals of the day. It was, instead, a

matter of ‘‘life and death’’ with respect to how one might interpret reality and enact

values in the world.

 

     Lloyd Bitzer’s ‘‘The Rhetorical Situation’’ (1968) argued that rhetoric was

situationally based, which made rhetoric a determined result of whatever the reality

of the situation was: ‘‘Rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation’’ (p. 9);

‘‘So controlling is situation that we should consider it the very ground of rhetorical

activity’’ (p. 5); and, most unambiguously, ‘‘[T]he situation controls the rhetorical

response’’ (p. 4).

 

     My ‘‘Myth’’ piece, as a counterpoint to Bitzer’s view, was based on the following

premises: the study of rhetoric has always been integral to, and perhaps synonymous

with, the study of persuasion. Rhetorical study and/or persuasion encompass

necessarily the depiction of reality to chosen audiences through chosen media. In

all of its forms such representation involves a rhetor’s choice or choices in trying to

determine what should have the attention of chosen audiences and what the chosen

situations should mean to those audiences. In short, discrete ‘‘situations’’ are largely

mythical concepts, rhetorically based and circumscribed (Vatz, 1973, 1981, 2005,

2006).

 

     I argued in ‘‘The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation’’ that, contrary to Bitzer’s

arguments, situations do not produce rhetoric, but rather that rhetors strategically

promote saliences and meanings for chosen audiences, and, when successful, these

pass for real situations to which it seems we must pay attention.

 

     As I argued in the ‘‘Myth’’ (1973) piece:

 

     The essential question to be addressed is: What is the relationship between rhetoric

and situations? It will not be surprising that I take the converse position of each of

Bitzer’s major statements regarding this relationship. For example: I would not say

‘rhetoric is situational,’ but situations are rhetorical; not ‘. . . exigence strongly

invites utterance,’ but utterance strongly invites exigence; not ‘the situation controls

the rhetorical response . . .’ but the rhetoric controls the situational response; not

‘. . . rhetorical discourse . . . does obtain its character-as-rhetorical from the situation

which generates it,’ but situations obtain their character from the rhetoric

which surrounds them or creates them. (pp. 158-159)

 

     Finally:

 

     Rhetors choose or do not choose to make salient situations, facts, events, etc. This

may be the sine qua non of rhetoric: the art of linguistically or symbolically creating

salience. After salience is created, the situation must be translated into meaning.

(p. 160)

 

     Honesty dictates the observation that if the competition between these perspectives

has been a 35-year footrace, it has been won by Bitzer’s philosophy. More articles and

professionals in our field cite his situational perspective (although quite a few use the

"Myth" perspective, and some do without realizing it) than my rhetorical perspective.

The situational outlook implies that rhetoricians qua rhetoricians have a perspicacious

perspective on reality that allows them to dictate to audiences what the

hierarchy of situational importance is in our society, indeed the world, and then

they can declaim on such matters and analyze the rhetoric which they claim

inexorably follows from what they arbitrarily define as controlling situations and/or

exigencies.

 

The Question of Relevance

 

     The situational take on rhetoric has a presumptuous starting point, and it has crucial

and material political and academic implications for our field. Professors of rhetoric

and communication who reflect that view in their teaching, publishing, and

commenting can assume that their rhetorical analyses merely reflect the truth as

dictated by the situation, a ‘truth’ which in actuality only corresponds to the values

and perceptions of the professor-critic.

 

     There is overwhelming competition to being able to interpret reality, particularly in

the political realm, and there are those who have a much better claim with more

significant audiences to be able to perform such interpretation than we rhetoricians.

The reason that rhetoricians have never preponderantly been the primary sources that

media go after is that we are just one of many competitors interpreting reality, and

often we are looked at as purveyors of ‘‘mere rhetoric’,” which perception the

situational point of view stated above fosters. Thus, assuming as valid the situational

root of rhetoric also means that rhetoricians, although they are often aligned with the

political zeitgeist of academia, must compete with other high-ethos sources in

political or social commentary sources which, again, have more bona fide

credentials to be able to sort out reality: political scientists, historians, journalists,

bloggers, etc. In fact, the fragmentation of prominent sources of rhetoric demands

even more the approach to rhetoric argued in the ‘‘Myth’’ piece. Imagine how

increasingly irrelevant situationally-grounded rhetoricians’ depictions and interpretations

of reality must seem to political principals, political professionals, and even

average citizens.

 

     We rhetoricians and political communication experts thus end up being second-class

citizens by playing the more accepted experts’ sport on their home territory, and

much of what we do constitutes an embarrassing redundancy. A minority in our field

is much sought after and excel in the public arena, but the rank-and-file cannot burst

through because they have no unique perspective or philosophy to offer, or else they

have a viewpoint which is understandably not seen as sufficiently different from other

standard academics.

 

     Moreover, most of the rhetoricians who are successful in often being cited and

quoted by media are those who claim, whether they realize it or not, that we have

some special perspicacity in ascertaining not what issues impinge on our reality, but

how rhetors compete to make salient their chosen agendas and how they compete for

interpretation or spin.

 

     Thus, the temporary victory of the realists of our field is a Pyrrhic victory.

Fortunately, though, the victory cannot be accurately claimed as completed, because

not only is the competition a marathon and not a sprint, it is a never-ending

marathon.

 

     Over the last few decades, several terms have emerged in the public lexicon which

correspond to the terms ‘‘creating salience’’ and ‘‘creating meaning.’’ These terms are,

respectively, ‘‘agenda’’ creation (creating salience) and ‘‘framing’’ and ‘‘spin’’ (creating

meaning). The term ‘‘agenda’’ has been popularized and has come to signify the

issues that a given source wishes to be discussed. The terms ‘‘framing’’ and ‘‘spin’’

creation have come to mean a strategic slant put on information directed to various

audiences, with the former term seen as less tendentious than the latter. The term

‘‘spin doctors,’’ derived from ‘‘spin,’’ has come to be a pejorative phrase referring

to allegedly base rhetors who consciously inject false infusions of meaning. All of

these concepts could have been part of an acknowledged lexicon of rhetorical analysis

if the majority of our field had not opted for the anti-rhetorical philosophy dictated

by ‘‘The Rhetorical Situation.’’ It is, incidentally, difficult to account for the motives

which have led to our sociologically devastating majority choosing the situational

perspective: it is partly the field’s hierarchical support for that perspective, but it may

also be that a situational perspective allows the academic to claim his or her

interpretation of reality is superior. Unfortunately, again, the situational choice leaves

rhetoricians competitively without a distinctive raison d’etre.

 

     Courses and books about persuasion, so critical to rhetorical study, have given the

rhetoric situation war short shrift. Many books about persuasion do not even

reference either perspective, despite the integral connection of the battle to this

wholly rhetorical study.

 

     One of the interesting questions that arises as regards the rhetoric-situation debate

is whether there is a liberal-conservative divide attending this ostensibly politics-free

difference in viewpoint. Bitzer’s examples in his 1968 article tended to be

conventionally liberal: he saw as a rhetorical hero John F. Kennedy, not Dwight

David Eisenhower; he saw as rhetorical exigence or problem in his original article

‘‘the pollution of our air,’’ but not the apposite profit-reducing constraints on a then

major steel industry produced by enforced reduction of pollution. Scholars in

rhetoric in fact typically use the rhetorical situation to foster liberal points of view.

Peruse major rhetoric and communication journals and notice how many

conservative United States presidents or politicians or actors in general are written

about positively, in contrast to their liberal counterparts.

 

     In the ‘‘Myth’’ piece and subsequent writings, I have argued that one of the

paramount issues in rhetoric is the responsibility that the source of rhetoric has for the

agenda he/she has chosen, and the interpretation of that agenda. President George W.

Bush’s insistence on Iraq’s salience and being part of his agenda can reasonably be part

of that which is cited as his legacy. However, how did he rhetorically make the case for

Iraq’s inextricability from the issue of terrorism, and how did he successfully depict,

for national and international audiences, the ‘‘War on Terror’’ as actually a ‘‘war?’’

These issues are appropriate fodder for rhetorical analysis, according to the ‘‘Myth’’

perspective, but do not lend themselves to our field’s performing situational analysis.

In fact, there is nothing inherently liberal or conservative in either approach that

lends itself to liberal or conservative argument. The essentials of each type of

argument are apolitical, but those of the situational approach are more easily used to

promote a political point of view -- usually liberal when the scholar is in academia --

whereas the rhetorical approach encourages more disinterested analysis and criticism.

 

     Examples regarding the differences between situational and rhetorical analysis are

literally inexhaustible, but there has been recently an especially revealing debate which

may serve as synecdoche for some of the preceding observations. The matter concerns

capital punishment and the claim that execution of criminals creates a new victim

class: the relatives of the deceased perpetrator (Associated Press, 2006). This new

focus (creation of salience/agenda) on a matter heretofore relatively unimportant to

many of us, states that even though members of the families of convicted felons

haven’t done anything wrong (selected facts and interpretation), those family

members are ‘‘victims too’’ (interpretation/spin). This is not a new phenomenon,

although a relatively new group, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an

anti-death penalty group, has written a text called ‘‘Creating More Victims; How

Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind.’’ Thus, through a new creation of salience

and agenda accompanied by a new infusion of meaning and spin (and framing of

the concept of ‘‘victim’’), a new persuasive action is attempted: to stop capital

punishment.

 

     The ‘‘Myth’s’’ “salience-meaning” or now perhaps “agenda-framing-spin” perspective

on rhetoric is one which makes rhetorical study a primary study. The situational

perspective argues that there is a reality which dictates that to which we pay attention

and what its significance is. The latter perspective puts rhetoricians in the weak

position of claiming in the face of higher ethos experts what the political reality is,

and that depiction serves as the entire basis for what rhetorical analysis has to offer.

The former focuses on the study of persuasion and makes our discipline a more

important player in the national scene of politics, a player that offers a unique

critical perspective for analyzing and commenting on persuaders’ choices of that

which to give rhetorical focus and the meaning, framing, and/or spin they argue for

their chosen saliences or agenda.

 

 

Richard E. Vatz is Professor of Rhetoric and #communication at Towson University. Correspondence to: Mass

Communication and Communication Studies Department, Towson University, 8000 York Road, Towson, MD

21252-0001, USA. Email: rvatz@towson.edu

ISSN 1535-8593 (online) # 2009 National Communication Association

DOI: 10.1080/15358590802020798

The Review of Communication

Vol. 9, No. 1, January 2009, pp. 1-5

 

 

 

 

References

Associated Press. (2006, December 25). Often criminals’ families are victims, too. The Baltimore

Sun, p. 6A.

Bitzer, L. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1, 1_14.

Vatz, R. E. (1973). The myth of the rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 6, 154_161.

Vatz, R. E. (1981). Vatz on Patton and Bitzer. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 67, 95_99.

Vatz, R. E. (2005). The article rewrite assignment. The Successful Professor, 4. Retrieved December

21, 2007, from http://pages.towson.edu/vatz/rewrite2006two.pdf

Vatz, R. E. (2006). Rhetoric and psychiatry: A Szaszian perspective on a political case study. Current

Psychology, 25, 173_