Vatz, “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation”

Response: Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 6.3 (Summer 1973): 154-161. (8 pages)

Vatz pushes against Bitzer’s description of the rhetorical situation and the relationship among its parts. Specifically, Vatz questions the source of meaning in Bitzer’s rhetorical situation. In Bitzer’s formation, “meaning emanates…from the thing, and as such there is no process involved in its formation; all that is necessary is to recognize the meaning that is there in the thing” (155). However, as Vatz writes, “meaning is not intrinsic in events, facts, people, or ‘situations’ nor are facts ‘publically observable.’ …we learn of facts and events through someone’s communicating them to us” (156). There are two parts to this process:

  1. Choice of events to communicate. Rhetors have a choice in the events or facts to communicate, and once that choice is made, the event is imbued with salience or presence: “by the very fact of selecting certain elements and presenting them to the audience, their importance and pertinency to the discussion are implied” (Perelman in Vatz 157).
  2. Communicating ‘situations’ is the translation of the chosen information into meaning. He notes: events are “’largely the creations of the language used to describe them’ Therefore, meaning is not discovered in situations, but created” (Edelman; Vatz).

Vatz places a great onus of responsibility upon the rhetor since it is the rhetor’s choices which create reality and salience. “We do not just have an academic exercise of determining whether the rhetor understood the ‘situation’ correctly. Instead, he must assume responsibility for the salience he has created” (158). In this way, he inverts all of Bitzer’s claims: “I would not say ‘rhetoric is situation,’ 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…” (159).

Lastly, he closes with one of my favorite quotes, “To say the President is speaking out on a pressing issue is redundant” (161).



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