Foss, Sonja K. “Rhetoric and the Visual Image: A Resource Unit.”
Communication Education, 31 (January 1982), 55-66.
Sonja Foss’ 1982 essay is both a practical and inventive guide towards what a course in visual rhetoric might look like at a time when the worlds of art and rhetoric existed quite separately. While Foss initially acknowledges roadblocks, she argues for art’s inclusion in the discipline of rhetoric by stressing that the mere definition of art is “extremely rhetorical” (55). It not only speaks to artists’ choices but also to viewers’ languages, and the discourse that happens between the two is rife for study. Foss makes the connection between the similarity of speaker and listener to that of the artist and viewer in that it follows a similar pattern, “a process familiar to rhetorical theorists and critics (55)”. She finds agreement within works by Burke, Duncan, Dewey, and Ehninger to allow “the symbolism of the visual image….to be studied as much as verbal discourse (55).” Here we must ask, in 1982, what was considered “appropriate subject matter” for the rhetorician?
Most importantly, Foss proposes a pragmatic guide for instructing students in methods of visual rhetoric analysis and critique in “ways in which visual phenomena can become the focus of a unit in a course dealing with rhetorical theory (56).” The objective of the course unit would be to “teach theories of contemporary rhetorical theory through visual elements (56).”
While Foss does not address theories of art or art criticism, she lays out a practical plan for the instruction of visual rhetoric, with reliance on guest lecturers and student exercises “to apply concepts and principles of contemporary rhetoric to the visual environment (56)” with the ultimate aim being to discover how these visual elements work within the same terminologies, methodologies and theories that are used within traditional rhetoric.
The “Sample Analyses” exercises take on a novel approach, putting visual rhetoric into practice by pairing the concepts of major rhetorical theorists with varied visual art, spaces, and environments. Foss links I.A. Richards’ ideas with Joan Miro’s abstract work Blue II, Kenneth Burke’s concepts with a Burger King restaurant (on Norfolk’s Colley Avenue no less), and Richard Weaver’s perspectives with the Virginia Beach ocean front.
Foss neatly runs through these exercises. Miro’s Blue II informs Richards’ concept of context – “a whole cluster of events that recur together” which allows the sign/symbol the ability to perform – wherein the context is a stimulus response. Richards’ semiotic triangle of symbol, referent, and reference as well as his binary between emotive and symbolic language is also employed to parse the viewer’s response to the abstract work of art. Burke’s notion or form (conventional, repetitive and progressive syllogistic) and cluster-agon analysis (the search for content to relieve/confirm conflicting anxieties) operate very clearly to visually inform the customer exactly what they are getting within the space crafted by Burger King. Weaver’s tenets of sermonic language and symbols as well as terms of a proper value (God/Devil) binary are found to be challenged and reversed when applied to the visual appeals of the Virginia Beach oceanfront on the tourist’s pilgrimage.
Foss’ definition of visual elements is, as it should be, very broad. Her hopes are that such a course that includes rhetorical responses to visual spaces, places and media would make traditional rhetoric students feel more comfortable with approaching the visual world as a subject of study while also raising awareness about their own tolerances for what is allowed as a subject of study.