Lloyd Bitzer initiated the conversation in his 1968 piece titled "The Rhetorical Situation." Bitzer wrote that rhetorical discourse is called into reality by state. He well-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 detached if discourse, introduced into the situation, and so compelled human decision or action as to bring about the important modification of the exigence." With any rhetorical discourse, a prior rhetorical condition occurs. The rhetorical state dictates the important physical and verbal responses as well as the sorts of observations to be made. An instance of this would be a President focusing on health care policy reform since it is an apparent problem. The situation, thus, calls for the President to respond with rhetorical discourse about this issue.
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In its principle Vatz claims that the definitive elements of rhetorical efforts are the struggle to generate for a chosen audience(s) saliences or agendas, and then this making is followed by the struggle to infuse the selected situation or facts with sense or spin. What are we persuaded to talk about? What are we persuaded it means or signifies? Not: What does the situation make us talk about and what does it intrinsically mean?
This presents the importance of subjectivity in framing socio-political realities. Vatz considers 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) that necessitates reply. A rhetor thus embraces more power by not being merely "controlled" by a state, but by forming a situation and making it salient in language. Vatz thus emphasizes social construction in opposition to Bitzer's realism or objectivism.
Though many states 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 basic parts make up any rhetorical state.
1. The first is the exigence, or a problem present in the world. An exigence is not rhetorical when it cannot be changed by human dealings, such as a natural disaster or death. An exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive alteration and when that positive alteration calls for the act of persuasion.
2. The second integral part Bitzer speaks of is audience. Rhetorical discourse encourages change through its impact of an audience's decision and actions. A rhetorical state necessitates that the members of an audience can function as mediators of change.
3. The third integral part is the set of constraints. Limitations are made up of persons, events, objects, and relations that limit decisions and action. Theorists influenced by Marx would moreover discuss ideological restraints, which yield unconscious restrictions for subjects in society, plus the social constraints of gender, class, and race. The speaker also brings about a new set of limitations through the image of his or her personal character (ethos), the logical proofs (logos), and the use of emotion (pathos).
A significant response to Bitzer's theory came in 1973 from Richard E. Vatz. Vatz considers that rhetoric defines a situation. Because the context of occasions could be forever described, persuaders must select which events to describe. With one choosing certain events and deciding their value of importance, this generates a certain presence, or salience. Vatz's quotes Chaim Perelman: "By the very fact of selecting certain elements and presenting them to the audience, their position and pertinency to the debate are implied. Indeed such a choice bestows these elements with a presence.
While the two views have been widely recognized, Vatz grudgingly swore that his piece is less recognized than Bitzer's. Vatz admits, while demanding that audience approval is not dispositive for gauging legitimacy or predictive for future audience acceptance, that "more articles and professionals in our field cite his situational perception than my rhetorical perspective." Bitzer's objectivism is clear and easily taught as a method, yet 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; depicting rhetoric as the cause of what people see as pressing circumstances boosts the significance of rhetorical study.