Visual Rhetoric

Interview of Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites

In the fall of 2008 Viz. contributor Nate Kreuter interviewed Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaties about their book No Caption Needed and their blog of the same name. Here is the transcript of that interview.

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The New whitehouse.gov

By now this is slightly old news, but in keeping with the previous post on Presidential photography, and because I thought it merited a mention here, I hope everyone has had a chance to check out the newly redesigned whitehouse.gov website:
A screengrab of the new whitehouse.gov website
Since President Obama's campaign had a reputation for design and branding savvy (much discussed on viz.), it's worth noting that the new website is similarly stylish and sleek: not surprising for a man hailed by some as the first "Digital President." Notably, the site retains layout and design elements similar to barackobama.com. Although so far there is no "Contribute Now" button, there is a form at the top of the home page where you can sign up for email updates. The main banner includes rotating photographs and "news" updates. There is also a new feature for the White House web site: a blog. In addition to all this, there is a fairly extensive "Agenda" page, much of the content of which seems to come straight from the "Issues" page of the campaign website.

All of this is in keeping with the usual hybrid function of the White House website to serve as campaign tool (never to early to start thinking about 2012), information portal, and cog in the message machine. But this design in particular seems to aim at a couple of President Obama's stated ambitions: to get people more involved in government and to open the workings of the executive branch to more transparency. It's interesting to think about how (and whether) this redesigned website helps achieve these aims. If I were teaching in rhetoric this semester, I would certainly consider designing an assignment around these questions.

Visual Rhetoric and Invisibility

This editorial cartoon shows a lesbian couple in a church with a minister saying I pronounce you a gay couple in a civil union, filing separate tax returns under IRS rules

Where is the line between visual and textual rhetoric? A brief event brought this question up for me on a personal level recently.

Image Meltdown

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”:

Taxonomy of web profile pictures

From The Guardian:

Commentator (old style). Ideal pose requires baleful gaze at reader as if he/she personally responsible for politico-moral decay. Examples: Peter Hitchens, Sin Simon, any Daily Mail curmudgeon. Pro: Suggests man so nauseated by state of nation he is barely able to stop himself vomiting. Con: Role of male Cassandra hard to sustain—risk of disillusioning readers if seen giggling tipsily in local pub.

Commentator (new style). Prettification reaches the comment zone, with political penseurs portrayed with a nascent, ambiguous smile. Examples: Simon Heffer, Simon Jenkins, Andrew Rawnsley. Pro: Embodying nation’s agony under socialism/ Thatcherism/Blairism full-time no longer required. Con: Followers from grumpy days likely to ask, “What's he got to smirk about? Country's going to the dogs!”

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.

Remember for a moment how much attention people used to lavish on the perfect quote for their e-mail signature. Now that self-conscious energy is applied to a photo. There's nothing inherently bad about the rise of Web head shots. They just turn what was once a space for burgeoning Cyrano de Begeracs into a space for burgeoning Brad Pitts. Read the stark conclusion of a 2000 meta-analysis of beauty studies that tried, in a careful way, to discover whether beauty really was in the eye of the beholder:

The effects of facial attractiveness are robust and pandemic, extending beyond initial impressions of strangers to actual interactions with those whom people know and observe. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is strong agreement both within and across cultures about who is and who is not attractive. Furthermore, attractiveness is a significant advantage for both children and adults in almost every domain of judgement, treatment, and behavior we examined.

In other words, this analysis confirms the elegant Montaigne observation that it quotes: “[Beauty] holds the first place in human relations; it presents itself before the rest, seduces and prepossesses our judgement with great authority and wondrous impression.”

Appropriating Obama imagery

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.

official Obama poster: change Poster criticizing Obama's wiretap vote

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.

original Shepard Fairey Obama poster Obama as snob poster

The poster on the right is a reference to what critics have described as Obama’s “elitism.”

a good idea at the time

This interesting poster criticizes the Obama campaign for using a poster style associated with revolutionaries like Che Guevara.

Obama buzzwords poster

Finally, this poster criticizes the rhetoric of the campaign, insinuating that it is built on buzzwords and lacks ideas.

Visual Rhetoric and Violence I

By Tim Turner (Contact)
See also Propaganda and Visual Rhetoric

What is the relationship between rhetoric and violence? Are they mutually exclusive?
Is violence only conceivable as a failure of rhetoric? Can rhetoric itself be violent?
Isn't violence often employed as a means of persuasion?

Francis Bacon's PaintingThese 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.

Lego Concentration Camp SetA 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,

Many of them reacted physically to this violence [in the course materials] (turning away, burying face in hands, squirming, covering eyes, etc.) and we got to discuss revulsion as a claim made on behalf of a larger argument about violence against the body (it's wrong, it shouldn't be seen, etc.). Of course this has a lot to do with breaking down of socially enforced barriers (inside/outside, public/private, self/other - my favorite one to point out - when they literally feel for the person they are watching with tingling hands and aching arms) that allows us to understand the political projects of such performances.

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.

John Galliano's newest fashion designs incorporating a torture aestheticFinally, 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

  1. What materials, if any, did you include on your syllabus that you consider "violent"?
  2. Did you include any kind of disclaimer on your syllabus or policy statement letting students know that the class would include violent materials?
    To what extent did you foreground violence as a topic for discussion or a subject for critical scrutiny?
  3. Did your class include any assignments that asked students to reflect on, write about, or critique depictions of violence?
    In what ways, if at all, did you ask students to respond to the violence of your course's materials?
  4. Was the inclusion of violent material in your syllabus incidental to your topic, or did you specifically choose your course topic with rhetoric and violence in mind?
  5. How do you think about the relationship of violence and/or representations to the teaching of rhetoric and persuasion?
    What role do these materials play in terms of pedagogical strategy?
  6. How successful were your efforts to incorporate violent material into the teaching of rhetoric in your course?
    How did your students respond?

Further Reading

On the web:
Bérubé, Michael, "The Rhetorics of Violence"
Dunleavy, Dennis, "Pictures, Memories, and Emotions"
"The Evolution of Violence in the 20th Century," No Caption Needed blog entry
"Pain as an Art Form," NYTimes blog entry on artists' representations of pain
Schowalter, Daniel F. "The Visual Rhetoric of Traumatic Histories"
"Visual Rhetoric and the Ethics of Controversial Images," Wikibooks article

In print:
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1998.
Derrida, Jacques. "Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas." In Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York City: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.

Image credits

Upper-right: Francis Bacon, Painting (1946; Museum of Modern Art, New York City)
Middle-left: One of Zbigniew Libera's concentration camp faux-Lego sets
Lower-right: John Galliano's most recent collection was influenced by a "torture aesthetic" (Photo by Marcio Madeira, for men.style.com)

Is it still a protest?

Another picture of Brian Haw's peace camp in London, Parliament Square

How does the space in which protest art appears affect the ways in which people respond to it? Or, even, if they see it as a protest at all?


In my class the other day, we talked about protest art. Among other things (Shepard Fairey), we looked at anti-war peace protester Brian Haw. Haw has lived in a peace camp in Parliament Square in Britain since June 2, 2001, remaining at the site full time, leaving only for court appearances.

Crimes of Fashion,* Part 1 in a 2-part series

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:

i was raped t-shirt image

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