The rhetorical situation is the context of a rhetorical event that consists of an issue, an audience, and a set of constraints. Three leading views of the rhetorical situation exist today. One argues that a situation determines and brings about rhetoric, another proposes that rhetoric creates “situations” by making issues salient, and yet another explores the rhetor as an artist of rhetoric, creating salience through a knowledge of commonplaces.
Lloyd Bitzer began the conversation in his 1968 piece titled “The Rhetorical Situation.” Bitzer wrote that rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation. He defined the rhetorical situation as, “A complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence.” With any rhetorical discourse, a prior rhetorical situation exists. The rhetorical situation dictates the significant physical and verbal responses as well as the sorts of observations to be made. An example of this would be a President focusing on health care policy reform because it is an apparent problem. The situation, thus, calls for the President to respond with rhetorical discourse concerning this issue. In other words, rhetorical meaning is brought about by events.
Although many situations may exist, not all situations can be defined as rhetorical situations, because speech cannot rectify the problem. Bitzer especially focuses on the sense of timing (kairos) needed to speak about a situation in a way that can best remedy the exigence.
Three constituent parts make up any rhetorical situation.
- The first is the exigence, or a problem existing in the world. Exigence is not rhetorical when it cannot be changed by human interaction, such as a natural disaster or death. However, exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when that positive modification calls for the act of persuasion.
- The second constituent part Bitzer speaks of is audience. Rhetorical discourse promotes change through its influence of an audience's decision and actions. A rhetorical situation requires that the members of an audience can function as mediators of change.
- The third constituent part is the set of constraints. Constraints are made up of persons, events, objects, and relations that limit decisions and action. Theorists influenced by Marx would additionally discuss ideological constraints, which produce unconscious limitations for subjects in society, including the social constraints of gender, class, and race. The speaker also brings about a new set of constraints through the image of his or her personal character (ethos), the logical proofs (logos), and the use of emotion (pathos).
An important response to Bitzer's theory came in 1973 from Richard E. Vatz. Vatz believes that rhetoric defines a situation. Because the context of events and choices of events could be forever described, persuaders must select which events to make part of the agenda. With one choosing certain events and not others and deciding their relative value or importance, this creates a certain presence, or salience. Vatz quotes Chaim Perelman: “By the very fact of selecting certain elements and presenting them to the audience, their importance and pertinency to the discussion are implied. Indeed such a choice endows these elements with a presence…”
In essence, Vatz claims that the definitive elements of rhetorical efforts are the struggle to create for a chosen audience saliences or agendas, and this creation is then followed by the struggle to infuse the selected situation or facts with meaning or significance. What are we persuaded to talk about? What are we persuaded it means or signifies? These questions are prior to: What does the situation make us talk about? or, What does it intrinsically mean?
This introduces the significance of subjectivity in framing socio-political realities. Vatz believes that situations are created, for example, when a President uses his agenda-setting function to focus on a health care plan, therefore creating a “rhetorical situation” (a situation determined by rhetoric). A rhetor thus enjoys more agency because s/he is not “controlled” by a situation, but creates the situation by making it salient in language. Vatz thus emphasizes social construction in opposition to Bitzer’s realism or objectivism.
While the two opinions have been widely recognized, Vatz has acknowledged that his piece is less recognized than Bitzer’s. Vatz admits, while claiming that audience acceptance is not dispositive for measuring validity or predictive for future audience acceptance, that “more articles and professionals in our field cite his situational perspective than my rhetorical perspective.” Bitzer’s objectivism is clear, and easily taught as a method, however errant it may be according to Vatz's construction, for rhetorical criticism. Vatz claims that portraying rhetoric as situationally based vitiates rhetoric as an important field; portraying rhetoric as the cause of what people see as pressing situations enhances the significance of rhetorical study.
Vatz is authoring for McGraw-Hill a revised book in 2017, "The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion: the Agenda-Spin Model," which explicates further his views on persuasion, rhetoric and situations.
Another response to Bitzer and Vatz came from Scott Consigny. Consigny believes that Bitzer’s theory gives a rhetorical situation proper particularities, but “misconstrues the situation as being thereby determinate and determining,” and that Vatz’s theory gives the rhetor a correct character but does not correctly account for limits of a rhetor’s ability.
Instead, he proposes the idea of rhetoric as an art. Consigny argues that rhetoric gives the means by which a rhetor can engage with a situation by meeting two conditions.
- The first condition is integrity. Consigny argues that the rhetor must possess multiple opinions with the ability to solve problems through those opinions.
- The second condition is receptivity. Consigny argues that the rhetor cannot create problems at will, but becomes engaged with particular situations.
Consigny finds that rhetoric which meets the two conditions should be interpreted as an art of topics or commonplaces. Taking after classical rhetoricians, he explains the topic as an instrument and a situation for the rhetor, allowing the rhetor to engage creatively with the situation. As a challenge to both Bitzer and Vatz, Consigny claims that Bitzer has a one-dimensional theory by dismissing the notion of topic as instrument, and that Vatz wrongly allows the rhetor to create problems willfully while ignoring the topic as situation. The intersection of topic as instrument and topic as realm gives the situation both meaning (as a perceptive formal device) and context (as material significance). Consigny concludes:
The real question in rhetorical theory is not whether the situation or the rhetor is “dominant,” but the extent, in each case, to which the rhetor can discover and control indeterminate matter, using his art of topics to make sense of what would otherwise remain simply absurd.:185
- Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation," Philosophy & Rhetoric 1, no. 1 (January 1968): 3.
- Richard E Vatz, “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6 no. 3 (Summer 1973): 157. Quoted from The New Rhetoric; Perelman, 116-17.
- Richard E Vatz, "The Mythical Status of Situational Rhetoric: Implications for Rhetorical Critics' Relevance in the Public Arena". The Review of Communication 9 no. 1 (January 2009): 1-5.
- Scott Consigny, “Rhetoric and Its Situations,” Philosophy and Rhetoric, no. 3 (Summer 1974): 175-186