It is a very deep and evolutionary process to contemplate one’s own theoretical and epistemological stance within a discipline, one that should perhaps be redone every ten years or so. It serves to magnify our critical perspectives on our own inner and outer worlds as scholars. Such an exercise is not to be taken so lightly but also not to be held to so stedfastly that new learning and change ceases to happen in ourselves and in our works.
Within the field of visual rhetoric, I tend to closely align myself with the concept that visual rhetoric is epistemic in that it is a generator of knowledge, a creator of reality (Harpine 335-336). Theoretically, I argue that visual rhetoric also provides a more expansive lens than traditional rhetoric to view the inner and outer world more closely, to examine critically how culture, from global to local, is crafted and presented/re-presented, perceived and partaken of. Visual rhetoric asks what is the structure and nature of visual information as presented (St Clair 92). It is not only knowledge-generating – it is “epistemic knowledge-seeking” (St Clair 85). Visual thinking and visual learning are happening every second of every day, imparting cultural and social perspectives, codes of behavior and response, identity construction/deconstruction, in ways that words often fail to do. Visual media are what allows us to move far beyond communication as just words or exchanged information; they construct a powerful and lasting connection among people occurring at the visceral and visual level of perception and cognition. I also argue for and hope to promote scholarship that advances visual rhetoric within the discipline of traditional rhetoric, positing the visual as having equal importance as verbal/written forms of rhetoric, looking towards Stroupe’s wry comment, “The visual is always rhetorical when rhetoricians are doing the looking, and especially when they are talking about the visual with the taste of rhetoric in their mouths (Stroupe 256).”
Drawing from Gronbeck’s three theories of visual rhetoric – semiotic-structuralist (object-centered), hermeneutic-phenomenological (perceiver-centered, and one context-centered), and culturalist (context-centered) - I can quite honestly say that I have yet to narrow my theoretical focus at this point in my career, as I currently feel that all three areas are of major importance and can play rather nicely together for valuable scholarship to emerge (Gronbeck 24). My theoretical and epistemological stance, when examining an ever-diverse range of visual objects of study, is deeply entrenched in my own personal and professional objectives. I intend to explore new avenues and areas of media where visual rhetoric can be applied to examine the changing meaning of authenticity in our culture. My body of past work and experience has lead to where I stand; it is the natural progression and propulsion of things. It all begins with nagging questions. My fascination with semiotics and visual rhetoric originally began as I pursued my career in graphic design over 15 years ago. A graphic designer is a social artist, dependent upon symbolic meaning as relayed and understood for success, and, if reality is a social construct, designers such as myself mediate and augment a viewer’s reality with an image/idea combination.
While at my first agency job fresh out of college, I discovered the dichotomy that is modern media and advertising. It is a benevolent dictator of sorts, being at once powerful and manipulative but comforting and empathetic to the consumers’ wants and needs. Its influential scope is incalculable, but its questions began to nag me as I sat at my workstation, producing piece after piece and traversing years in the industry, through new media and methods of marketing and communications. What are the roots of our modern forms of visual media? From where does it draw its wit, its secrets, its “power” over how viewers will perceive the pitch? Most importantly, how do we construct and deconstruct visual information and why? It goes deeper than the focus group – its roots lay in the history of visual communications, visual literacy, semiotics and rhetoric to construct our beliefs and perceptions. As Stroupe has argued, “The provocative question does nor raise issues of a cognitive user, but of a socially situated audience and of the media’s role in defining subjectivity (255).”
These nagging questions made me see that I was taught all of the technical “hows” of visually crafting a work but never the “whys”. I then expanded into the world of the Humanities for my Masters, which provided a lush interconnectivity of art history, English studies, popular culture, history, philosophy, media, and culture studies that served to deepen my understanding of our visual world and to provide even more questions about the nature of the visual beast, or “gnarly problematics” as Gronbeck would call them. Why does it work? Does it “work”? What are the components at play? How does one manufacture a ubiquitous meaning? The very concept of an “innate” quality to visual rhetoric and to reality itself came into question. I was posited at the intersection of visual rhetoric’s exigency within interdisciplinarity.
Visual rhetoric became, for me, an exercise in critical thinking that once seen could not be unseen. All the world suddenly becomes a visual text to be critically evaluated. The objects of study exploded. Theoretically and epistemologically, these artifacts should not be contained but allowed to ever-expand as new ways of seeing and of experiencing the visual as it moves into more virtual spaces. Robert St. Clair serves to remind us that “[v]isual meaning… comes not from verbal dichotomies, but from Gestalt configurations. (89).” One of the great benefits and beauties of visual rhetoric is the wide and varied span of research opportunities that it presents. Visual rhetoric is for me, a reflection of my thinking – both culturally relevant as well as interdisciplinary in nature. In a search that began as a way to find answers to nagging questions, all roads lead to where I stand.
Gronbeck, Bruce E. "The Gnarly Problematics of Vision and the Visual." Proceedings of the Media Ecology Association 10, 2009. 19-33.
Harpine, W. D. "What do you mean, rhetoric is epistemic?" Philosophy and Rhetoric, 37(4), 2004. 335-352.
St. Clair, Robert N. “Visual Metaphor, Cultural Knowledge, and the New Rhetoric.” In John Reyhner, Louise Lockhard, W. Sakeswtewa Gilber and Joseph Martin (editors), Learning in Beauty: Indigenous Education for a New Century. Flagstaff: Northern Arizona University Press. 2000. 85-101.
Stroupe, Craig. "The Rhetoric of Irritation: Inappropriateness as Visual/Literate Practice." Defining Visual Rhetorics. Ed. Marguerite Helmers and Charles Hill. Mahwah, NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 2004. 243-258.