Visual rhetoric is a sub-discipline of traditional rhetoric, linguistics and semiotics that investigates the communication, persuasion, and cultural impact of the visual elements that surround us every day. Though visual rhetoric, as it stands today in academic departments, is a fairly young but flourishing area of study, it can be argued that, as a social practice, decoding of visual stimuli and body language preceded language in the course of human history. Scholar Sonja Foss provides a perceptive definition in stating, “Visual rhetoric refers not only to the visual object as a communicative artifact but also to a perspective scholars take on visual imagery or visual data (Foss, Framing the Study: 305-306).” Historically speaking, due to the multidisciplinary nature of visual rhetoric, it is a complex definition to pin down and an even harder area of study to institutionalize.
The first movements toward visual rhetoric began with methodological examinations performed by those in traditional linguistic and rhetoric scholarly circles. Rising with the emergence of Structuralism and a shifting of semiotic methods and analysis, visual rhetoric broke ground in the 1950s with, among others, Kenneth Burke and Roland Barthes finding validity in a rhetorical approach focused on the visual to be read and inspected as a text. For his part, Barthes began a critical dialogue by asking if an image can be informed by linguistic and rhetorical interrogation. Can it communicate meaning in the same manner as language if we apply similar linguistic methodologies to unraveling visual symbols (Barthes 32)? Visual rhetoric has been rapidly growing as a discipline in college and university systems since that time (Olson 1).
One of the major obstacles to historicizing visual rhetoric is the wide array of nomenclatures used to describe the practice and scholarship long before “visual rhetoric” was widely accepted as the defining naming convention. Lester Olson provides just a few to drive the point home: “rhetoric of symbolic action, rhetoric of non-oratorical forms, non-verbal rhetoric, rhetorical dimensions of media or popular culture, symbolic strategies or inducement, rhetorical iconography or iconology, pictorial or visual persuasion or argument, pictorial metaphor, electronic or celluloid rhetoric, rhetorical icons or iconic images, material rhetoric or rhetoric of material culture, rhetoric of visual conventions, and digital rhetoric (10-11).”
HOW IT GREW
Applications of visual rhetoric were largely confined to evaluations of traditional art forms until technology and media dominated the public landscape by the late 1960s. When popular culture became “totally dominated by images” (Mitchell 15), visual rhetoric was an early adopter to follow the trajectory of media evolution as source points for evaluation and critique. Indeed, media emergence and proliferation exploded the rhetorical field, leading college communications departments to primarily address the visual field of study. Here, early theorists found new modes and methods in the presentations/representations that film, advertising, television and print provided. As Olson points out “Whether visual rhetoric scholarship has examined the sciences, the humanities, or the arts, it has concentrated regularly on technological developments that have fundamentally transformed visual culture and communication practices (8).”
Early on, the emergence of visual rhetoric in scholarly texts was largely the work of roving independent scholars and lecturers in the U.S. and in Europe stress-testing the university systems to see what departments could bare for many years. While core courses and/or concentrations in visual rhetoric were not provided by many university departments up until the past ten to fifteen years, scholarly collaboration in visual rhetoric by Penn State University and the University of Pennsylvania during the 1970s and 1980s produced encouraging results. Still some universities such as the University of Iowa loudly denounced visual rhetoric’s inclusion due to its scope being “excessively broad” (Olson 12).
FINDING A FIT
Alas, the greatest strength of visual rhetoric – its wide-angle lens on the world – is also its greatest weakness when being parsed by college and university administrators for course/core inclusion. It covers so many disciplines that it can present a challenge to easy categorization. Its relationship to the university system since acknowledgement as a sub-discipline has been one of contention, mainly based on questions of where visual rhetoric fits within the university’s departmental missions. How can it be institutionalized and where does it fit? What might a course in visual rhetoric look like? Foss attempted to answer the latter in a 1982 essay that maps a potential course in the field, “to apply concepts and principles of contemporary rhetoric to the visual environment (56)” in the hopes of demonstrating how visual elements follow the framework of traditional rhetoric. Over 30 years later, visual rhetoric courses and degree programs can be found in a majority of universities within their departments of English, Humanities, Communications, Visual Art, Culture Studies, Graphic Design and even Medicine and Technology. This is due largely to visual rhetoric’s willingness to amplify contemporary cultural theory more quickly and more deeply than most fields (Foss, Framing the Study: 312-313).
I wonder as Olson does “How might the study of visual rhetoric be better positioned and developed within colleges and universities in the United States (14)?” As a valuable sub-discipline, it is my (perhaps quixotic) assertion that visual rhetoric needs to be institutionalized in such a manner that multiple departments can inform each other in order to better inform a new generation of visual rhetoric scholars. Visual rhetoric reveals to us such a constructed character of meaning that is not just an aesthetic/linguistic critique but also social, cultural, and political, positing it clearly in the historical category of being one of very few truly interdisciplinary fields of study.
Barthes, Roland. "The Rhetoric of the Image." Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 32-51.
Foss, Sonja K. “Framing the Study of Visual Rhetoric: Toward a Transformation of Rhetorical Theory.” Defining Visual Rhetorics. Ed. Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004. 03-13.
Foss, Sonja K. “Rhetoric and the Visual Image: A Resource Unit.” Communication Education, 31; January 1982. 55-66.
Mitchell, W. J. T. “The Pictorial Turn.” Picture Theory: Essays in Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1994. 11-34.
Olson, Lester C. "Intellectual and Conceptual Resources for Visual Rhetoric: A Re-examination of Scholarship Since 1950." The Review of Communication 7.1; October 2007. 1-20.