The Anatomy of Rhetoric

On 1968, Lloyd Bitzer proposed the concept of rhetorical situation to propose that events and rhetoric are framed by the situations that give birth to them. Bitzer wrote that rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation, and that with any rhetorical discourse, a prior rhetorical situation must exist. His claim that situations defined rhetoric centered around notions of kairos and exigency. Although many rhetoricians took to Bitzer’s notions, some criticized it heavily – and Richard E. Vatz, five years after Bitzer suggested the rhetorical situation, wrote an essay proposing a position completely opposite to that of Bitzer’s. As any good rhetor would, Vatz opens his paper by explaining Bitzer’s position “that meaning resides in events” (155). He writes on how Bitzer finds meaning as residing in events and that “the intrinsic nature in events form which rhetoric should follow” (155). However, he is quick to dismiss Bitzer’s ideas as hokum when in direct opposition to Bitzer, Vatz stated that “fortunately, or unfortunately, meaning is not intrinsic in events, facts, people, or “situations”, nor are facts “publicly observable” […] except for those situations which directly confront our own empirical reality, we learn of facts and events through someone else communicating to us” (156).

One of Vatz’ stronger reasons to support his claim revolves around accountability. He explains that under Bitzer’s notions of rhetorical situation, “we [can] ascribe little responsibility to the rhetor with respect to what he has chosen to give salience”, but that if we view rhetoric as the creator of situations, as “a choice, interpretation, and translation, then the rhetor’s responsibility is of supreme concern” (158). Indeed, Vatz’ positions are in direct opposition to Bitzer – while to Bitzer rhetoric is situational, to Vatz situations are rhetorical. To Bitzer, the situation controls the rhetorical response, but to Vatz the rhetoric controls the situational response. With these two positions appearing to be mutually exclusive, one must wonder as to the accuracy of either claim. This dichotomy of thought invites the most obvious of questions: which of these two schools of thought is better suited to represent a framework of discourse – and perhaps of reality itself? I would argue that despite the seemingly contradictory nature of the two theories, both of them are – at the same time – correct and incorrect. While Bitzer is correct in assuming that, initially, rhetoric is the result of situations (after all, there can be no rhetorical discourse if there is no situation to disagree over), the rhetoric created by the initial situation in response creates not only a counter rhetoric, but also a new situation.

Despite our disagreement with Vatz on the validity of Bitzer’s rhetorical situation, we must concede that Vatz’ critique of Bitzer is not entirely incorrect. Despite the fact that situations give birth to a rhetoric, Vatz correctly explains that rhetoric is not guided by situation. If we consider the possibility of a multitude of rhetorics – as many as there are rhetors – being able to stem from one situation, then Bitzer’s argument that situation dictates the rhetoric is rendered null. By assuming that different rhetorics can be adopted to individual circumstances, then the rhetor stops being the simple conduit of situation that Bitzer’s ideas imply him to be and becomes the accountable individual that Vatz states he is. In this way, the situations are always rhetorical, but at the same time rhetoric is also situational, and the rhetors are accountable for their own rhetoric.
Certainly, both Bitzer and Vatz offer examples as evidence to support their claims and positions; however, the examples that they offer are somewhat superficial. In order to demonstrate that Bitzer’s and Vatz’ models are both valid and invalid, I would like to explore a contemporary issues, the Wisconsin protests, through Bitzer’s and Vatz’ rhetorical lenses in order to discover, so to speak, a situation’s procedural rhetoric.

The Rhetoric of the Wisconsin Protests

The latest development in the Wisconsin protests involve the state police force joining the protestors in capitol hill. This is clearly a rhetorical situation, as it is an event that invites a rhetoric. However, because this situation is a response to Gov. Scott Walker’s rhetoric stating that protesters are thugs that need to be forced out of the Wisconsin capitol building. This makes the event is both a rhetorical situation and a response to a rhetoric simultaneously, while the rhetoric used by Walker is both a rhetoric that incites situational responses and that is in itself a response to a situation. This in-between rhetoric, it could be argued, can be considered as multi-situational rhetoric. If one were to trace this situation  rhetoric spiral, one would attribute Walker’s response as a reaction to the situation of protesters in the state capitol, which was in itself a response to Walker’s attempt to take away the rights that workers have earned during the past century. Although some might argue that Walker’s attempts were prefaced by his anti-worker rhetoric, this rhetoric is in itself a response to a situation: a budget deficit. If we take the budget deficit as the source situation of the situation  rhetoric spiral we will see that a single source situation can create several different rhetorics.

In Wisconsin, Walker is using an anti-worker rhetoric in order to respond to the source situation – the original exigency – but simultaneously there exists an anti corporations rhetoric which equates corporate greed with the source of the deficit. Both of these rhetorics spur various protests and counter rhetorics that when taken together weave a web of rhetorical situations and situational rhetorics so interconnected that it makes arguing exclusively for Bitzer’s or Vatz’ position a ridiculous endeavor.
In the end, it would be hard to disagree that both Bitzer and Vatz made significant contributions to the way we perceive the inner workings of rhetoric. However, because of their radically different positions, they are unable to really grasp the full nature of rhetoric and rhetorical situations. There can be no arguing that while situations are rhetorical, rhetoric can also be situational. Indeed, the situation-rhetoric relationship is by far more complex than either one of the two scholars of rhetoric can comprehend, and while I am certain that the model of situation-rhetoric presented here does not fully encompass the full complexities of rhetoric and situation, it is certainly a step forward.


Lloyd Bitzer – The Rhetorical Situation

Richard Vatz – The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation

*This is a first conception draft of a work in progress*


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on March 1, 2011, in Literature Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This post was really helpful. I’m working on a project right now about this stuff. Have you read Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric, I think his work is a continuation of Bitzer and, in a way, proves that Bitzer had the better idea.

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