Room in the Room
As a teenager would approach the fortified doors of a manor home, carrying meaningful baggage, visual rhetoric comes to traditional rhetoric with a bevy of disciplinary informants and a vague unified theory, simply requesting to be let in to the house. Once invited in, it must ask how and where it should unpack its goods.
Along the short but rocky path of becoming a legitimate sub discipline, many theorists “have persuasively contended that images fail as often as they succeed in conveying intended, coherent, or objective meanings upon which the very notions of argument, persuasion, and communication depend (Vivian 478).” Finding that foothold for visual rhetoric in the world of traditional rhetoric is due in large part to the quickening wave of new media forms that have evolved over the past seventy years. Even at its earliest instance, visual rhetoric often looked to popular culture to examine culturally divisive visual texts, leaving it at odds with rhetoric’s traditional Greek and Latin tomes. This “ubiquitous incorporation of visual images into all forms of discourse, both public and private” made the adoption of the sub discipline a necessity (McComiskey 189-109). Visual rhetoric has forced traditional rhetoric to move beyond questions of identification, assessment and evaluation of the legitimacy of the image’s function to realize the image’s place as a constituent component of language-based rhetorical analysis as well as how “culturally-shaped practices of viewing might be useful for re-envisioning rhetoric” as a whole (Olson 14).”
It would seem that visual rhetoric was initially given a crooked look in part because it presents to traditional rhetoric a slippery slope – if rhetoric includes the visual, what’s next?…the rhetoric of the body, rhetoric of identity marking, rhetoric of simulation, rhetoric of medicine? Or (as Vivian performs) the rhetoric of the virtual? Will the visual eventually supplant the verbal? And then what becomes of pure rhetoric as taught and practiced? Academic production goes a long way towards addressing such anxieties. Recently, a great deal of research and texts have been produced to give credence to visual rhetoric as essential to understanding the new multimodal world in which we live, not merely as a compendium to rhetoric. Many new works and anthologies on visual rhetoric bring voices from many disciplines together to allow it to take shape, such as Diane Hope's 2006 collection Visual Communication: Perception, Rhetoric and Technology and Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers' 2004 anthology, Defining Visual Rhetorics.
The Interdisciplinary Dilemma
Once accepted in the door, can a practice that draws from so many disciplines and examines such a wide body of visual knowledge achieve a unified theory? There are multitudinous complexities at play disallowing a unified theory to take form so far. Visual rhetoric travels over multimodal discourses of representation, crosses mediums, traverses disciplines, and can be presented/represented in multiple ways. At the base of this problem is its very strength of interdisciplinarity, which Charles Hill points to in stating, “Research and scholarship in the production, comprehension, interpretation, and analysis of visuals continually takes place in fields as diverse as art history, anthropology, education, semiotics, film studies, political science, psychology, and cultural studies, but none of these disciplines can claim the study of visual communication as its own, and there is little coordination among the various fields that study it (Hill 111).”
Janet Wolff sees this inability of theorists to reach across disciplines to inform each other as being nothing but an impediment to real change, wherein a reliance upon discipline-restricted texts to inform the proliferation of more texts brings little baring to the ever-shifting cultural nature of the world in which we live (714). Lester Olson seems to agree with the disciplinary problematic outlined by Wolff: “While each distinctive disciplinary sociology has enriched visual rhetoric scholarship, it has resulted in researchers proceeding with less than ideal awareness of each other's scholarship. A predictable consequence is that it sometimes seems as though it has been necessary to reinvent the pencil before sitting down to write, or the stylus before sketching (11).” Yet Bradford Vivian may well challenge the idea of a unifying theory even being a qualifier for such an important mode of analysis-auditioning-as-sub-discipline in arguing that “[t]he rhetoric of an image consists not merely in its representation of a prior, intended argument or ideology but in its present and future productions of multiple or differential modes of perception, viewing subjects, forms of affect, and attributions of sense and value (491).” In essence, the rhetoric of rhetoric itself is challenged to evolve when presented with visual rhetoric.
A Problematic Pedagogy
As previously discussed, where does one start to introduce visual rhetoric into pedagogy? Where do our things go in the rhetorical room? How much prior knowledge from arts, graphics, semiotics, communications, and various other informers have to be taught for learning-as-application to transfer? Students are already steeped in the world of images and multimedia platforms of communication via culture and technology but where do we begin to bring visual rhetoric into the classroom? Charles Hill finds that, without “a detailed vocabulary and methodology on the scale of the ones that have been developed for the analysis and critique of persuasive verbal texts,” a tried-and-true pedagogy of visual rhetoric has not been established (Hill 121). In his work “Reading the Visual in College Writing Classes”, he does go quite the distance in providing a framework for methods to take form in a course format, though he also brings us back to visual rhetoric’s interdisciplinary nature as making cohesion problematic in theory as well as pedagogy (111).
Hill points to the “prejudices and fears” of those in academia as passing down to the students, who must be “convinced that visual images constitute meaningful texts at all in the sense that people are used to thinking about written texts (110).” With instances of visual rhetoric included as “add-on units, subordinated to the larger goal of developing students' reading and writing abilities,” Hill warns us as educators, that “ignoring the visual aspects of rhetoric, even the visual aspects of written texts, hinders our efforts to help students develop an accurate understanding of the nature of rhetorical practice, including an adequate understanding of the potential, as well as the limitations, of written discourse (Hill 110).” New problems cannot be solved by new generations of theorist using old modes, outdated methods, and stiff pedagogies.
Hill, Charles, A. “Reading the Visual in College Writing Classes.” Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World. Ed. Carolyn Handa. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's (2004): 107-130.
McComiskey, Bruce. "Visual Rhetoric and the New Public Discourse." JAC 24, no. 1 (2004): 187-206. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.odu.edu/stable/20866617.
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.
Vivian, Bradford. "In the Regard of the Image." JAC 27, no. 3/4 (2007): 471-504. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.odu.edu/stable/20866797.
Wolff, Janet. “Excess and Inhibition: Interdisciplinarity in the Study of Art.” Cultural Studies. Eds. Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., Treichler, P. Routledge, New York (1992): 706-718.