Visual rhetoric has contributed a great number of valuable theories and methods to the disciplines of communications, rhetoric, art criticism, professional writing, and composition, just to name a few, since its emergence in academic scholarship. Debate has propelled many theories and methods within visual rhetoric, growing mainly from two areas: 1) how the visual is weighted in terms of value against written or verbal rhetorical critique and analysis, and 2) what is included and/or excluded as objects of study.
In regards to the first theoretical problematic, it is convention to use the framework of literary analysis for visual analysis wherein “looking” becomes “reading”, and “the visual” becomes “a text”, further promoting the primacy of traditional rhetoric and composition on visual rhetoric. Yet as the sub-discipline evolves with unique perspectives, objects of study and methodologies, I have to wonder if it is more apparent than ever that visual rhetoric evolves within its own framework and language, or if that would be a counter-productive move likened unto an Oedipal struggle within disciplines. Julia Romberger points out, “…we are getting to a point where it is almost a false dichotomy to split visual and linguistic as artifacts or objects. Rather we should talk as aspects of the same communication medium when they are so deeply intertwined (Personal correspondence, October 26, 2016).” Mieke Bal argues as well that “any definition that attempts to distinguish visuality from… language, misses the point of the ‘new object’ entirely (10).”
Objects of Study – In Theory and In Practice
These new objects require theoretical reconceptualization to proceed with our intellectual work. Issues of OoS are raised by famous scholar from Douglas Ehninger to Charles Hill and continue to be problematic – can we apply visual rhetoric to everything upon which our eyes light? Should we? Where do we begin and end the great divide of what is or isn’t valued as a visual object of study? As technology and the production of images and visual stimuli are marching forward at a pace almost too dizzying for academic production, such theoretical conversations are more necessary now than ever before.
Having limitless objects of study naturally can lead to methodological issues as well. Bal provides a polemic to enter the conversation around what she deems “visual essentialism” versus exploded concepts of what counts as visual:
“Instead of visuality as a defining property of the traditional object, it is the practices of looking invested in any object that constitute the object domain: its historicity, its social anchoring and its openness to the analysis of its synaesthetics. It is the possibility of performing acts of seeing, not the materiality of the object seen, that decides whether an artifact can be considered from the perspective of visual culture studies. … Indeed, some ‘purely’ literary texts only make sense visually (Bal 11).”
Sonja Foss also responds to the objects of study debate by asserting,
“Not every visual object is visual rhetoric. What turns a visual object into a communicative artifact - a symbol that communicates and can be studied as rhetoric - is the presence of three characteristics. In other words, three markers must be evident for a visual image to qualify as visual rhetoric. The image must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience. (Foss 144).”
In all its forms and manifestations as a social construct and product, the object of study in visual rhetoric presents a subject/object dilemma that springs forth from intention, from acts on the part of the producer, the consumer, and the rhetor that “ought to disentangle and reorder (Bal 8).”
Common and Uncommon Methods – An Evolution
With its origins in classical rhetoric, it perhaps goes without saying that visual rhetoric has traditionally encompassed many methods employed by its parent discipline. Burke’s notion of termanistic screens is now ubiquitously applied and accepted as are methodologies of positing and evaluating framing (“not only of the object but also of the act of looking at it [Bal 9]”). Narrative theory has been adapted from traditional literary and composition disciplines to provide enriching methods of reading the text of an image. Visual artifacts craft powerful visual narratives through tropes of arrangement and framing.
The visual and the story/myth have long cohabitated for shaping cultural meaning and communication. Gretchen Barbatsis argues, “By expanding the notion of narrative to include all symbolic forms of expression, visual communication scholars gain a valuable set of critical tools for examining this pictorial mode of sense making as a theoretical model of understanding visual communication (330).” An image has narrative syntax, expectations, and assumptions that provide a framework for “crisis and resolution that we come to recognize as the kind of story it tells, or more significantly, the kind of argument it makes about the nature of the world (Barbatsis 345).”
I consider Foss’ methodological foci on symbolic action, human intervention and audience presence within visual arrangements and their relationships to traditional linguistic texts to be essential in conducting critiques of visual artifacts (Foss 144-145), but it is worth noting that these three areas of attention should be pushed to new bounds by emergent trends. Where are these new areas of boundary pushing? What is arising as a challenge for our critical evaluations such as they are? Virtual worlds, simulated environments, big data visualizations….Within multimodal digital environments, a theoretical distinction can no longer be made between an original image and a reproduction. This complicates ethos, pathos, logos and kairos. Douglas Davis posits that “the aura….has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Benjamin’s prophecy into the rich realm of reproduction itself (381).” At our current trajectory, visual artifacts will soon be composed in equal measure of traditional artifacts and reproductions and simulations, forcing new theories and methodologies to manage the analysis of such unique and challenging objects of study.
In the arena of social media and meme analysis, iconographic tracking is a trend that is allowing us to keep up with the current velocity of image generation/regeneration and responds to means of visual dissemination wherein memes can quickly evolve into meta-memes. Laurie Gries argues that “studying image as event” in such a way allows researchers to move away from visual rhetoric’s linguistic constrains; “[r]ather, images conceived as events can be studied as a dynamic network of distributed, unfolding, and unforeseeable becomings (Gries 335).” In this case, iconographic tracking is used to locate the origin of symbolic action and how it is translated and recoded in different way and to what end. Gries calls for a new pictorial turn that brings us closer to where we need to be to confront emerging technologies, to keep pace, by using current research methods to inform new theories and methods to deploy in digital environments (346). Visual rhetoric is uniquely presented with rich opportunities in the digital optic arena. It is this born-digital visual world that will force our hand towards new theories and methods that are imperative to our evolution as a discipline.
Bal, Mieke.“Visual essentialism and the object of visual culture.” Journal of Visual Culture 2; 5, 2003. 5-32.
Barbatsis, Gretchen. “Narrative Theory." Handbook of Visual Communication. Eds. Smith, K., Moriarty, S., Barbatsis, G., and Kenney, K. Mahway, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2005. 329-350.
Davis, Douglas. “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995).” Leonardo, Vol. 28, No. 5, Third Annual New York Digital Salon, 1995. 381-386.
Foss, Sonja K. “Theory of Visual Rhetoric.” Handbook of Visual Communication: Theory, Methods, and Media. Eds. Ken Smith, Sandra Moriarty, Gretchen Barbatsis, and Keith Kenney. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2005. 141-52.
Gries, Laurie E. “Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetoric and Circulation Studies.” Computers and Composition 30, 2013. 332–348.