If a situation falls in the forest, is there rhetoric?

Some rhetorical analysis-spawned musings. More of these later.

A central point that Lloyd Bitzer makes about the rhetorical situation in “The Rhetorical Situation” is that situations call discourse into existence. Rhetorical situations are “natural context[s] of persons, events, objects, relations and an exigence which strongly invites utterance” (48). The utterance participates in the situation and is a necessary part of its completion. On the other hand, Richard Vatz in “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation” argues something very much the opposite, that reality is too complex to be understood as a “rhetorical situation” and instead that discourse calls situations into existence. As Vatz claims, “no situation can have a nature independent of the perception of its interpreter or independent of the rhetoric with which he chooses to characterize it” (154). The meaning in a situation is a result of its being made meaningful by a rhetor, a rhetor who then makes choices about what is part of the structure of the situation and what is not.

One passage that provides an interesting opportunity for argument on this question is from Bitzer:

“It is clear that situations are not always accompanied by discourse. Nor should we assume that a rhetorical address gives existence to the situation; on the contrary, it is the situation which calls the discourse into existence. Clement Attlee once said that Winston Churchill went around looking for ‘finest hours.’ The point to observe is that Churchill found them—the crisis situations—and spoke in response to them” (Bitzer 47).

It is easy to see the gap in thinking that Vatz might point out—in the Churchill anecdote, Bitzer seems to gloss right over the significant first narrative step: finding situations. Churchill, according to this account, had to find them first. That is, he had to undertake first the act of phenomenologically creating the ‘crisis situations’ through perceiving them before the second act of identifying those crises to the rest of the world through his discourse. Of course, in identifying those crisis situations, he doesn’t necessarily create the situation in reality, but he does create them as crises to be reacted to (and thus we could take an entire narrative critical turn at this point). Churchill did not send the German army into the Low Countries and France on May 10, 1940. He did not drive a Nazi tank or hop into the cockpit of an RAF fighter, and would not be in the factories churning out the arms and ammunition that his radio address of May 19 calls for. But (as Lanham describes in Analyzing Prose) Churchill does something subtle with his use of ‘we’—he identifies the crisis not as an individual experience of soldierly, private death but rather as an experience that all of England takes part in. Thus he brings his radio audience into an experience of the situation and to get them to understand its implications for their own future. He takes a distant event and creates a situation to be responded to, and then makes his call to action.

Of course, Bitzer would turn around and offer that the discourse could not exist without the reality of the situation; without a solvable problem to solve and an audience to persuade to solve it, Churchill has nothing to do, no necessity for rhetoric, no function for rhetoric even if offered.

There is at some level a bit of chicken/egg hunting here. No, if the Nazis weren’t bombing, Churchill wouldn’t have spoken. If Churchill hadn’t spoken, on the other hand, the crisis nature of the situation may not have been a reality for the audience he’s speaking to. Then again, the crisis is a crisis for somebody whether Churchill hears about it or not. <tangent>If the tree falls in the forest, does it count if only a porcupine hears it? Does it matter if the porcupine lives in that tree or two trees over? </tangent>


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