Visual Rhetoric - Visual Culture - Pedagogy
Recent Blog Posts
Submitted by Sarah Wagner on Sun, 2008-11-02 21:18
Where is the line between visual and textual rhetoric? A brief event brought this question up for me on a personal level recently.
Submitted by dsmith on Tue, 2008-10-14 11:04
A compelling essay on the current money mess by Charles Eisenstein at the eclectic and ambitious web magazine, Reality Sandwich, offers the following perspective on the larger meaning of “meltdown”:
Submitted by John Jones on Wed, 2008-07-16 09:20
From The Guardian:
You can find the whole list here. (Unfortunately, there are no example photos.)
Here’s a nice description of the growing importance of the headshot in social media applications from the Slate article where I found the link.
Submitted by John Jones on Thu, 2008-07-10 08:27
The distinctive visual style of the Obama campaign has prompted a number of visual responses, as critics have appropriated this style in order to challenge the Senator’s policies and behaviors.
Below I’ve posted some examples of images that are critical of Obama, yet derived from campaign posters. I’ve placed some original Obama posters to the left of the copies for comparison purposes. You can click on individual posters for linkbacks to the sources where I found them.
Recently, a number of Obama supporters have become disenchanted with his change of heart on the FISA legislation, particularly the way in which this move makes the senator’s rhetoric about hope and change appear to be mere political calculation.
The poster on the right is a reference to what critics have described as Obama’s “elitism.”
This interesting poster criticizes the Obama campaign for using a poster style associated with revolutionaries like Che Guevara.
Finally, this poster criticizes the rhetoric of the campaign, insinuating that it is built on buzzwords and lacks ideas.
What is the relationship between rhetoric and violence? Are they mutually exclusive?
These questions may pose challenges to the prevailing pedagogical models employed in introductory rhetoric classes, which tend to be organized around the "common ground" model of civic or "civil" discourse. As I have suggested elsewhere, while this model is desirable for many reasons, it may also be challenged by the uncivil or unethical modes of persuasion with which we are often confronted in the public and/or private sphere, including, for example, propaganda. In other words, when the "common ground" model privileges or presumes arguments made in "good faith," it may do a disservice to students, who will frequently be confronted by arguments made in "bad faith," that is, arguments that do not adhere to some presumed or assumed notion of what constitutes "good argument" in the public sphere.
The very notion of "good argument" raises questions about what is at stake in the teaching of rhetoric, however. In theory, "good argument" is argument that is persuasive. Taken in this sense, the theoretical and practical concerns of an introductory rhetoric course coincide: instructors teach students how to recognize effective, persuasive arguments written by others ("rhetoric" conceived as a theory of persuasion) and encourage students to model these techniques of effective persuasion in their own writing ("rhetoric" conceived as a practicum in writing). "Goodness" in this context is nonetheless complicated by the ethical stakes of persuasion. People are often persuaded by ethically suspect arguments: arguments that are dishonest, demagogic, or that persuade the listener to engage in morally untenable acts. (Of course, the definition of what constitutes "moral" is itself open to interpretation and, therefore, argumentation; moral critique may be subjected to rhetorical critique.)
Yet there is also a connection between ethics and rhetoric in that both "disciplines" insist that one be responsive to the needs of someone else: in rhetoric, this means listening to what the other person has to say (as in the "common ground" model) and responding, sometimes by making concessions, and in ethics, for example, in considering how one's actions will impact others or those situations in which one ought to act to give assistance to others. In both cases, what is implied is a certain claim that the other person makes on me, or that I, in my turn (when I make my argument or when I act in the public sphere) make on them. Both revolve around a certain susceptibility, and this is one reason why the common ground model is attractive: it insists on notions of responsibility, or response-ability, in public, civic life. At the same time, this susceptibility potentially has what we might think of simply as a "dark side": or rather, the abstract susceptibility we have in thinking, in argument and debate, has a physical corollary in our susceptibility to bodily violence--this is susceptibility as vulnerability.
In thinking about pedagogical strategies for teaching rhetoric in the past, I have tried to allow these considerations to impact the content in my courses. Most often, this means I have asked students to think about the relationship of violence to rhetoric; about texts that encourage violence; whether, as is sometimes said, violence is what happens when rhetoric fails; and even whether rhetoric itself, the forms of an argument, can be violent. To consider these questions, I have often relied on depictions of violence to conduct such arguments. In my RHE 309 course, the Rhetoric of War and Peace (a topic chosen with many of these questions in mind), these included images of violence including war films, documentaries, and photography. Including such images was not only a way to introduce some of the ethical questions at stake in the teaching of rhetoric. They also had the effect of introducing, often in uncomfortable ways, the visceral into our discussions in a non-gratuitous way. I saw such a strategy as integral to teaching rhetoric in part because persuasion itself is not always only about thought/thinking; it is usually persuasion to action.
A survey of some of my fellow instructors indicates that while violent images and imagery often form part of the 309 curriculum, the role played by depictions of violence in pedagogical strategy may remain undertheorized. However, the prevalance of such imagery (which may simply be related to the overall prevalence of violence in forms of popular culture) in 309 courses indicates that instructors recognize the pedagogical uses to which violent imagery may be put. One instructor writes, for example, that "Students actually seem drawn to the most violent imagery; it illicits a real response from them. I think that when they see violent imagery they feel compelled to respond." This notion is echoed in the response of another instructor, who writes,
Like many of the rhetorical strategies discussed in rhetoric classes, depictions of violence may be said (in general terms) to "move," both literally and figuratively, the audiences to which they are shown or at which they are aimed. Depictions or representations of violence may be deployed as rhetorical strategies, and this point complicates an easy sense that violence and rhetoric are mutually exclusive or that violence is only conceivable as a failure of rhetoric or in the absence of rhetoric.
Finally, the status of violence in rhetoric classes is further complicated by the potential disruptions of meaning it may impose. More straightforwardly, this analysis begs an important question: what is violence? This may well be a question for definitional argument: how do we, or even how can we, think about, discuss, represent, or understand violence? Recently, for example, this question has especially been an issue in discussions of the Holocaust (as I have discussed in an earlier blog entry). In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Giorgio Agamben argues that it is politically untenable to "lend a sacraficial aura to the extermination of the Jews by means of the term 'Holocaust'" (114) because treating these events as a matter of what he calls "religion" obscures the mechanisms which led to the unfolding of such events in the first place. Agamben's work confronts the view, widely prevalent, that the violence of the Holocaust is essentially unrepresentable or untranslatable in ordinary terms. Perhaps relying on the simple axiom that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, Agamben urges engagement and confrontation with an issue to which, as he argues, insufficient attention has been paid.
Agamben's arguments are well worth consideration, but it remains an open question whether such forms of violence are ultimately reducible to purely intellectual analysis. Two issues seem to be at stake here. First, Agamben's work has the benefit of reminding us that violence is sometimes an inescapable part of the public sphere (in popular culture or in political life). He asks us to think critically and carefully about the work of violence, about its meaning and status in everyday life. In short, he asks us to think about what violence is and how it works. He asks us to see its political/civic dimension. At the same time, the potentially affective dimensions of depictions of violence challenge, in useful, productive ways, the notion that violence and rhetoric are "opposites" or mutually exclusive. While the "common ground" model of rhetorical pedagogy privileges or presumes the existence of a civil public sphere, approaches to the teaching of rhetoric that incorporate some discussion of violence offer a "rhetoric-from-the-margins" approach. Incorporating attention to violence, to the visual rhetoric of violence or to violence as visual rhetoric, asks students and instructors to think critically about the constitution of a public sphere in which, ultimately, we are asking our students to responsibly (and response-ably) participate.
Questions for assessing the status of violence in the rhetoric curriculum
On the web:
Upper-right: Francis Bacon, Painting (1946; Museum of Modern Art, New York City)
Submitted by erinhurt on Fri, 2008-04-25 09:05
Submitted by mkhaupt on Mon, 2008-04-14 10:28
A couple of t-shirt designs have ignited discussion in the interwebosphere of late, and since they represent the extremes of feminism (i.e., radical feminist to decidedly NOT feminist), I thought it would be interesting to put them in conversation with each other, especially under the rubric of what constitutes "free speech" and "visual rhetoric."
First is the "I was raped" t-shirt masterminded by Jennifer Baumgardner, the poster woman for radical third-wave feminism:
Contemporary introductory rhetoric classes are often (understandably) ordered around the exploration and promotion of the "common ground" model of civic discourse. Students are encouraged to look for continutities among various perspectives in order to demonstrate that they understand and can synthesize various points-of-view. Furthermore, students are encouraged in such pursuits with a particular purpose in mind: so that they might, as a kind of capstone project for any given course, produce well-written, well-reasoned arguments of their own--including fair prolepses demonstrating that they can respect the arguments of their opponents. While in a partisan society this model is both desirable and healthy, it may sometimes foster either a tendency to overlook forms and methods of persuasion that eschew such approaches altogether, or privilege the "civic/civil" discourse surrounding public controversies while ignoring other, perhaps more pervasive forms of rhetoric, such as advertising, "spin," or propaganda.
It may, however, be useful to incorporate or implement focused units around these culturally central phenomena that are sometimes marginalized in classroom discussions of rhetoric. In exploring and emphasizing these questions, it may be especially useful to incorporate units on propaganda. These units may include some classical rhetorical theory (Kenneth Burke, "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle"), a historical discussion of the use of propaganda in the West in the 20th century (although its history, of course, is much older than that), film screenings of recent documentaries like Control Room or Outfoxed, and formal and informal writing assignments about examples of propaganda. Additionally, units organized to explore the use of propaganda also have the advantage of helping introduce the concepts and vocabulary of visual rhetoric into classroom discussions.
Such conversations are useful because they illuminate for students a range of rhetorical possibilities, including the fact that "bad" arguments can be quite influential and that modes of persuasion cannot (and should not) be divorced from ethical considerations. From this perspective, discussions of propaganda may also be useful in that they help illuminate discussions of the fallacies of argument (in which case, "bad" is taken to mean specious, illogical, or poorly reasoned). But discussions of propaganda may also lead to discussions of the ethical dimensions of persuasion (in which case "bad" is taken to mean ethically or morally suspect).
A unit on propaganda might have the following structure:
A note about sensitivity issues: many of the historical examples of propaganda in the attached slide show include images of an offensive nature. It is extremely important to foreground their presentation with a careful discussion of the context of these images, as well as disclaimers about offensiveness and, of course, non-endorsement. At the same time, the presentation of such images is in a way precisely the point of such a presentation; however specious, these examples are modes of persuasion that were influential in their way. The point of approaching conversations about rhetoric from the margins, as this discussion of propaganda allows, it to confront the non-civil modes of persuasion that are sometimes employed in ideological contests. Part of what this approach to rhetoric assumes is that such modes of persuasion cannot and should not be ignored. As Burke puts it in his essay on Hitler's Mein Kampf,
Here is the testament of a man who has swung a great people into his wake. Let us watch it carefully; and let us watch it . . . to discover what kind of 'medicine' this medicine-man has concocted, that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America (191).
Further resources on the web:
Submitted by mkhaupt on Mon, 2008-03-31 14:05
A couple of discussions online of late have got me thinking about what happens when we interpret an image one way and are called on the carpet for "mis"interpreting it or reading too much into it. What do we reveal about ourselves and our own possibly subconscious biases when we publicly interpret an image, especially a problematic one?
A couple of weeks ago, a blogger on Feministe.com posted the cover of the current issue of Vogue, which features LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen in a pose that the blogger felt was racially insensitive:
Note here that her commenters were pretty much split in their assessment that they couldn't see the problem with the image or that Jill was spot-on in her analysis.
Submitted by erinhurt on Thu, 2008-03-27 17:12
I ran across an interesting blog on Lens Culture that argues that a recent French magazine cover (posted below) equates Obama to a young, inexperienced boy.
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