Vatz – The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation

Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader. Eds. Sally Caudill, Michelle Condit, and John Louis Lucaites. New York: Guilford Press, 1998. 226-231. Print.

In this follow -up and critique of Lloyd Bitzer’s theory of rhetorical situation, it is clear that Richard Vatz also wants to see rhetoric recognized and valued as a discipline, but for different reasons and through different means. For example, Vatz concluded that “It is only when the meaning is seen as the result of a creative act and not a discovery, that rhetoric will be  perceived as the supreme discipline it deserves to be ” (161). Vatz argued that the notion that a single rhetorical situation can be found in a given event is a myth. He continued to go against Bitzer’s (1974) theory of rhetorical situation which relied on the understanding that the situation or event itself contained meaning and called the rhetorical discourse into existence.

Vatz main critique of Bitzer’s theory is that it reflected a Platonic worldview that not only assumed a “clear” meaning and exigence, but also a “clear” and “positive” modification that should be taken in a rhetorical situation. Vatz used Burke and sociologist Herbert Blumer to demonstrate the subjectivity in all rhetorical situations. Contending that the  world  was not  a  plot  of  discrete  events, he wrote, “the world is a scene of inexhaustible events which all compete to impinge on what Kenneth Burke calls  our ‘sliver of reality'” (156). In any given situation, according to Vatz, a rhetor must take two steps to communicate: 1) choose what facts or events are relevant and 2) translate the chosen material to make it meaningful (157). That being so, Vatz argued that “[n]o theory of the relationship between situations and rhetoric can neglect to take account of the initial  linguistic depiction of the situation” (157).

Vatz further distinguished his theory from Bitzer’s and explicated what the implications for rhetoric are:

“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.” (159)

Vatz contended that this distinction in the treatment of meaning and rhetoric would determine whether rhetoric was perceived as “parasitic” in relation to disciplines, such as philosophy and the sciences which make and/ or discover meaning, or thrived at the top of the disciplinary hierarchy as the creator of meaning.

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