What is Acceptable
It is a rather ill fit to essentialize, to say that those in the field of visual rhetoric analyze and interrogate all visual objects. Scholars investigate visual language within cultures that occurs in all spheres of perception, from low culture to highbrow, expanding out from our visual place among nature to more multimodally, virtually and technologically crafted spaces. Film, art, architecture, advertising, interfaces, simulations, photography, products, data visualizations, resumes, display techniques …the list could certainly go on and the scope becomes impressively global. The main focus remains, as Charles Hill pointed out, on locating points of persuasion within a visual artifact that allow them to become a cultural artifact, brimming with rhetorical constructs (Hill 2004). It is the visual artifact’s iconic, symbolic and contextual components that speak to the scholar’s desire to reveal their hidden framework.
Critiquing visual artifacts through a rhetorical lens is crucial to helping us understand the workings of rhetoric, the choices of designers/artists, and our negotiated power as audience/consumers. Bal captures the essence of my dilemma of oversimplification, stating,
“Of course, there are things we consider objects – for example, images. But their definition, grouping, cultural status and functioning must be ‘created’. As a result, it is by no means obvious that ‘visual culture’, and hence, its study, can be set apart, let alone consist of images. At the very least, the object domain consists of things we can see or whose existence is motivated by their visibility; things that have a particular visuality or visual quality that addresses the social constituencies interacting with them (Bal 8).”
What and Why
I must admit that I am not overly fond of the terms visual text or visual artifact. These terms reflect strategies developed for analysis that just do not seem to capture the true resonance and force of movement of visual objects of study. It is as if we are using archaic language to describe something that will not hold still long enough before the next iteration emerges. Our methodologies and methods can be applied to all visual expressive artifacts, from traditional visual art works to the design of web pages and comic books, from book crafting as an interface to simulated virtual environments. Visual rhetoric scholars analyze and critique visual artifacts to reveal the rhetorical implications, codes and contextual composition that is implicit in the production, consumption and dissemination of these artifacts. At its simplest, visual rhetoric is where symbolic action and rhetoric meet and shake hands while observing, seeking out tropes and affordances at the intersection of impact and intent.
A Return To Debate
We return again to the visual/verbal divide within institutions and discourse. In regards to the primacy of one over the other, we find problematics emerge that impact objects of study. Visual artifacts provide access to a range of human experience not always available through the study of verbal discourse. An old joke among designers is, “If you design something beautiful and no one ever sees it, does it really exist?” Visual rhetoric highlights the communicative dimensions of images, focusing not only on criticism and analysis, but also rhetorical response.
Finding that “design, like rhetoric, may be applied with regard to any subject,” Buchanen presents an interesting question in asserting, “At this point we may begin to ask whether design is a modern form of rhetoric—or whether rhetoric is an ancient form of design. Although we tend to think of the products of design as artifacts—graphics and industrial objects—there is nothing in our formal definition that would forbid us to consider traditional verbal rhetoric as a species of design (191).”
In Picturing Texts, the authors address the complexities of “texts” in their methodology: “Words, images, and other graphics all function as acts of communication. All are texts… whether they’re used in combination or alone. Photographs, novels, poems, maps, brochures, advertisements, web sites, telephone directories, product labels: all are texts. Similarly, when we talk about reading in this book, we have in mind an extended sense of reading that includes words, images, and graphics (Faigley et al. 14).”
Should We Begin With Cave Paintings?
Historically, visual rhetoric has emerged out of sheer necessity to make sense of the rhetorical structures and implications of visual artifacts that proliferate as rapidly as we can perceive. Technology forced visual methods of analysis to attempt to keep pace with the dissemination of objects of study. This acceleration is only increasing as methods are just beginning to gel within the sub-discipline.
A paradigm shift away from visual art and architecture to new objects of study grew from the world of design and communication within popular media and technology where it flourished for many decades, long before visual rhetoric became an accepted discipline. Graphic arts/design experienced many technical changes in the 1950s that caused many to question “the dangers of a society permeated with pseudo images” that later lead to theoretical “debates over whether images are a reflection or a construction” within cultural contexts (Barnhurst et al. 617). At our present time, the very nature, velocity and saturated landscape of visual materials in our culture has demanded that visual objects of study be accepted as valid text when it is difficult to deny the degree to which they orient our very cultural and personal fabric. The visual object becomes a social object, a symbolic rhetorical reflection and construction of observation, perception and humanity’s traditions and memory, subjectivity and presents enacted at once.
Bal, Mieke. “Visual essentialism and the object of visual culture.” Journal of Visual Culture 2; 5, 2003. 5-32.
Barnhurst, Kevin, Michael Vari and Ígor Rodríguez. “Mapping Visual Studies in Communication, with State of the Art in Communication Theory and Research.” Journal of Communication 45.4, Winter 2004. 616–44.
Buchanan, Richard. “Design and the New Rhetoric: Productive Arts in the Philosophy of Culture.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 34, No. 3, 2001. 183 – 206.
Faigley, Lester, George, D., Palchik, A., & Selfe, C. Picturing Texts. New York: W.W. Norton. 2004.
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.