Visual Rhetorics, Visual Methods

Visual Rhetorics, Visual Methods

Just before the Fall, 2015 semester began, I tweeted a link to my Pinboard collection of articles and blog posts related to visual research methods. My message was simple: if you teach visual rhetorics or visual methods, here are hundreds of syllabus-worthy links in one handy place.

But even as I shared that collection of links, I worried about how colleagues in the field might interpret the collection, and whether they would even find use in them. This worry stems from the possible mismatch about what each of us considers to be representative of visual rhetoric. I don’t mean this in some strictly subjective sense, but in the broader sense in which our field’s view of visual rhetorics has congealed and become normative.

Even though I’ve written about the relationship between visual rhetorics and visual methods in various places, I’m aware that I’ve never made the connections, overlaps, and productive divergences particularly clear in spaces such as Twitter and here, on my blog. My fear is that teachers and scholars who are familiar with (and teach) mainstream approaches to visual rhetorics may be unclear as to how links such as this Slate post about Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese brooms—to take just one recent example—is useful for teaching and exploring visual rhetorics.

In this post, then, I’ll try to clearly and succinctly explain my perspective on the relationship between visual rhetorics and visual methods for teachers and scholars in rhetoric, writing studies, and related disciplines.

Historical interests in the visual, aural, multimodal, and multisensory aspects of persuasion and composition are by now well established. But our approaches to the visual, in particular, are predominantly reception-oriented. This is no critique, but a statement of fact regarding the scope and methodological focus of most of our field’s formative scholarship on the visual. Research in visual rhetorics overwhelmingly involves analysis of extant images (still and moving) and other extant visual phenomena. Those projects that use images in the processes of empirical research—for example, Cushman (2011) or Wickman (2010)—are outliers rather than evidence for prevalent or even emerging trends.

It may seem as if I am oversimplifying; I am not. The differences really are this simple.

But make no mistake: reception-oriented approaches to visual rhetorics are essential to our (and our students’) understanding of visual phenomena. My own arguments for using visuals in the processes of empirical research of writers and rhetors, I hope, draws from, complements, and extends reception-oriented approaches in different ways, toward different ends. Visual research methods, in other words, are closely parallel to the traditional analyses and subject matter of visual rhetorics.

The great majority of the links posted in my Pinboard collection are selected with my empirical, visuals-made-in-research approach. There are many, many posts highlighting what we might call documentary photography or photojournalism. There are very few posts featuring the work of anyone who might unambiguously be called researchers of writing or rhetoric.

So why did I argue that this collection is useful for teachers and researchers of visual methods and visual rhetorics?

For those interested in making images as part of research in rhetoric and writing (or teaching such approaches), there are hundreds of links that serve as inspiration, that feature compelling and often novel subject matter, that execute common visual methods (though for admittedly different purposes and audiences), and that present challenging or even orthogonal approaches that might help clarify and improve our work.

And for those interested in analyzing extant images from a variety of perspectives, the collection is a treasure trove of opportunity with a decidedly realist bent.

The post I linked to about brooms, for example, is more art photography than photojournalism, but it’s rich with implications for empirical visual researchers and visual rhetoricians.

For visual researchers, the project uses images to: (a) create a typology of like objects and thus a framework for comparison and analysis; (b) to celebrate beauty, craftsmanship, utility, place, and purpose in the everyday; and (c) to explore both situated and comparative experience. I’d be thrilled with any research design exploring writers and rhetors that would help me do so much.

For visual rhetoricians, the project uses images to: (a) foreground the compelling and varied visual aspects of mundane, ready-to-hand materials and objects; (b) to effect a visual typology that demonstrates similarity and difference in designed artifacts; and (c) to foreground work in visual rhetorics by one artist/photographer as a way of speculating on what such visuals do to and for particular audiences.

These analytic axes are off the top of my head, and as you’ll note, there is plenty of productive similarity across lists. Savvy teachers of visual rhetorics could come up with any number of alternative approaches to this example. Good examples, such as this one, will explore both visual methods and visual rhetorics in tandem.

In sum, visual rhetorics and visual methods are complementary approaches to our field’s study of visual composition and persuasion. Many of the links in my Pinboard collection may not appear to be firmly within the traditional realms of visual rhetoric, but I hope to have shown how nearly all of these examples could be productively examined from both perspectives.


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