Introduction: Notes on Visual Rhetoric

David Blakesley
Collin Brooke

continued . . .

Visual Rhetoric

In 1994, W. J. T. Mitchell described the resurgence of interest in the visual as a pictorial turn, and implicitly at least, suggested that it was the next incarnation of the linguistic or rhetorical turn that animated late-postmodernism and the post-Philosophy question.

Whatever the pictorial turn is, then, it should be clear that it is not a return to naive mimesis, copy or correspondence theories of representation, or a renewed metaphysics of pictorial "presence": it is rather a postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality. It is the realization that spectatorship (the look, the gaze, the glance, the practices of observation, surveillance, and visual pleasure) may be as deep a problem as various forms of reading (decipherment, decoding, interpretation, etc.) and that visual experience or "visual literacy" might not be fully explicable on the model of textuality. (W. J. T. Mitchell 16)

Mitchell aimed to demarcate the pictorial as (perhaps) distinct from the textual, "textuality" being too narrow a conceptual model for understanding how pictures work. However, the conception of textuality that would make such a move possible—a move to a fully articulated visual model of interpretation—is itself overly restrictive, depending as it does upon a formalist understanding of language as a realistic mechanism of representation, as an interface or window to something else. Mitchell was warranted in criticizing the notion of visual literacy for its simplistic understanding of textuality as the mere process of decoding or encoding words. Visual literacy was the mantra of post-McLuhanesque media studies and contributed to a widespread understanding of the visual as "like a text" that can be read, decoded, and interpreted unproblematically and acontextually, even if it might still wield enormous power. As Mitchell suggested, the visual may not be fully explicable on the model of textuality. The problem, as he saw it, was to articulate a model based on picture theory, a model borne of the medium that it would seek to describe.

The larger problem, perhaps, is that we have isolated textuality, turned it into something that requires its own model, which we then apply indiscriminately to other media. If, as Mitchell claims, all media are actually "mixed media," we should bring textuality and visuality together, really together, before we pull them apart. Moreover, we should interrogate whether they need to be pulled apart in the first place. Rather than removing textuality from our model of the visual, we should be more careful (and more flexible) about the model(s) of textuality we have in mind. More importantly, we might explicate textuality on a model of visuality, seeing visuality and textuality not as isolated phenomena, but as sharing at a deeper level some common roots in perceptual and linguistic processes (see Barbara Stafford on the visual nature of analogy, for example). Perhaps we should spend our time developing such a dialectical model, one in which words and images are inseparably bound in an act of symbolic interpretation and action. There has always been more to textuality than words, as the work of Roger Chartier and more recently Espen Aarseth has demonstrated, just as there has always been more to the image than meets the eye. If we can move past the problem posed by an underdeveloped model of textuality, one in which rhetoric has no place, we can begin to understand the significance of the visual turn. In naming this issue's theme "visual rhetoric," we make such a gesture. We hope to encourage readers to decide whether rhetoric might offer one way past (or around) the visuality/textuality opposition that has perplexed so many.

In classical times, the sophist and teacher, Gorgias, recognized the power of the word to conjure images, a power to make things present in the mind and thus sway the will. [1] He believed that such power could be used for good or for ill, just as rhetoric itself could lead us astray or reveal the greater good. Aristotle believed that rhetorical invention was the exercise of judgment on the uncollected words and images stored in memory in an act of deliberative imagination. Quintilian spoke of those vivid conceptions, phantasia, that must be conjoined with knowledge of the subject and audience, and "kept clearly before the eyes and admitted to our hearts" (10.7.15; 141). Charts and diagrams of visual gestures, representations that seem quaint to a culture grounded in the printed word, take on new significance in a world where the pixel is replacing the word as the fundamental unit of communication. It is a world where theorists interrogate the no longer obvious or necessary distinction between texts and images, with profound ethical, political, and epistemological implications, as Mitchell and others have shown. We have served witness to the conflation of word and image in the astounding development of media technologies in the late twentieth century. By many measures, we have rediscovered the visual nature of rhetoric. As students and teachers adapt to these new technologies and venues for reading and writing, it will be important to understand the ways that words and images function rhetorically and together in the various forms of media and literature that grab our attention and so delicately direct the intention.

Just as rhetoric involves more than the deployment of words and sentences in the right order, visual rhetoric involves more than just spatial arrangement or the effective use of page or screen space, font faces, headers, or visual evidence. Until fairly recently, that's what people had in mind when they used the phrase visual rhetoric. In The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, for instance, Stephen Bernhardt rightly notes that the visual functions rhetorically in part because "the visual design of the text filters the information on the page" (747). Rather than equate visual design with visual rhetoric, he suggests we examine how the visual functions at the point of encounter (at the interface) to enable persuasion or foster identification. Certainly, visual design is one (important) aspect of visual rhetoric, but I think it is over-stressed at the expense of more intense scrutiny of how the visual functions at the point of encounter, as enabling persuasion or fostering identification, for example. How does the visual communicate meaning? Or, putting it another way, how do we interpret the visual world? Do we interpret words any differently than we do visual images? If so, what's the difference? And what's rhetorical about this process? To address these questions, we need sustained study of the integrative function of the human mind as it sees, perceives, interprets, and otherwise reacts to the visual world, drawing from works like Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct : How the Mind Creates Language (2000) and How the Mind Works (1999) and, earlier, R. L. Gregory's The Intelligent Eye (1970) or Eye and Brain (1966; 1997). We need to understand that even as seeing is believing, it works the other way around as well: believing is seeing. We need to believe to see, in other words. If believing is seeing, then we need to ask what difference it makes for rhetoric that we only see what we already believe, or that we only know what we already believe, or that we only believe what we already see.

Both the visual and the rhetorical turns represent a resurgence of interest in the ways that our means of representing experience, including mental experience, has some bearing on what can be known. In simple terms, word choice is both stylistic and epistemological; how we say or write something has a real effect on how we know. Knowledge is itself discursive; that is, it is composed of terms and images that have but an indirect correspondence with reality. Texts and images may represent other worlds, but a sophisticated approach to visual rhetoric will range beyond what Mitchell dismisses as "naive mimesis," acknowledging that texts and images also express a world of their own, a kind of self-referentiality that also has meaning.

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1. Two works that discuss at some length the interanimation of the verbal and visual in classical rhetoric are William A. Covino's Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination and Bruce McComiskey's Gorgias and the New Sophistic Rhetoric.

Copyright Enculturation 2001

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