A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

6.2: Kairos and New Media

Kairos and New Media:  Toward a Theory and Practice of Visual Activism

David Sheridan, Michigan State University
Tony Michel, Avila University
Jim Ridolfo, Michigan State University

Enculturation 6.2 (2009): http://enculturation.net/6.2/sheridan-michel-ridolfo

On February 24, 2005, over 30 students (including Jim Ridolfo, co-author of this chapter) at Michigan State University (MSU) “occupied” the first floor of the central administration building, setting up a portable CD player and then dancing for a half hour to salsa music.  As part of a five-year local campaign directly affiliated with a national campaign spearheaded by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), as well as the international anti-sweatshop movement, these local student activists staged this particular image event to pressure MSU into joining the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).  The WRC is a labor oversight body that works to ensure that the licensing of collegiate apparel contracts are not granted to companies whose labor management practices produce sweatshop working conditions.  Partly because of strategic media prep work done beforehand, this image event was covered in three local newspapers, including the Lansing State Journal, the widest circulating mid-Michigan paper.  Following this image event, on April 5, 2005, the student groups involved in the protest were notified at an MSU Board of Trustee’s meeting that the university intended to join the WRC (Davis).

Kevin DeLuca has argued that image events such as the MSU dance-in can function as important rhetorical strategies for effecting social change.  Such image events “contest social norms and deconstruct the established naming of the world”  (59).  The "unorthodox rhetoric" of the image event "reconstitutes the identity of the dominant culture by challenging and transforming mainstream society's key discourses and ideographs" (16).

  How does rhetorical education need to be transformed, given that it has historically been linked—as DeLuca rightly observes—to models in which rhetoric is defined narrowly as “civil, reasoned, verbal discourse”  (14)?  What would rhetorical education look like if it were reconfigured to prepare citizens to deploy image events as legitimate forms of public sphere participation?  What if, alongside more traditional essays and themes, first-year college students (for instance) were asked not only to analyze but to produce image events?

This chapter uses the image event to explore a pedagogy of visual activism.  We begin with the admittedly vexed concept of the public sphere, focusing on the importance of access and the role that education plays in ensuring access.  We then offer an outline of what a pedagogy of visual activism might look like, finding in the ancient rhetorical concept of kairos a useful starting point.  Although kairos has traditionally been applied to strategies of persuasion and to the verbal, we expand the concept to include decisions about mode, media, and technology that, we argue, are critical considerations for successful rhetorical interventions.  We show how kairotic considerations informed the surprisingly complex set of rhetorical practices associated with the MSU worker rights image event.  Finally, we sketch some fundamental classroom practices that foreground kairotic assessments of modes, media, and material resources.


Access and the Public Sphere

As DeLuca observes, although it is contested, "the concept of the public sphere is indispensable for theoretical and practical reasons"  (21).  One of the reasons the concept of public sphere has been vexed from the beginning is the simultaneous necessity and difficulty of making claims about access.  Jürgen Habermas, for instance, is routinely critiqued for his initial focus on a public sphere limited to male bourgeois participation.  Yet, in the Habermasian public sphere, as Jacobson and Storey put it, a "symmetrical distribution of opportunities to contribute to discussion must exist"  (103).  Achieving this symmetry, however, is not a simple matter.  Access demands at least three preconditions: (1) access to the forum (e.g., coffee house, TV studio, Internet chatroom); (2) access to material resources (e.g., printing presses, paper, ink, computers, networks); and (3) access to knowledge and skills (e.g., the ability to employ certain kinds of rhetorical strategies, the ability to use certain technologies)  (Garnham 361, 365; Tagg 18).

In many ways, the image event itself can be seen as an attempt to address the problem of access to forum.  Because airtime is so expensive, many organizations have to create a media product that a network can sell to its viewership.  The image event needs to be "newsworthy" in the capitalistic sense of the word: something that will cause prospective viewers to foreswear competing pursuits in favor of "tuning in."  In a digital age, however, activists increasingly have access to a diverse array of venues and material resources.  New technologies of rhetorical production (such as inexpensive video editing applications) coupled with new channels of distribution technologies (such as the Internet) are enabling new forms of visual activism.  Although access to venue and material resources continue to be key barriers to reaching the ideal of equal participation in the public sphere, access to the kinds of knowledge necessary to take advantage of new venues and resources is even more difficult to achieve.  Providing activist rhetors with computers and Internet access does not increase participation in the public sphere unless citizens also have access to the complex skill sets necessary to use these tools effectively.  Such skill sets range from a rehabilitated model of functional computer literacy (Selber) to an understanding of visual rhetoric and the ways that it can serve the activist rhetor.  Rhetorical education, then, potentially has a role to play in fostering a new public sphere characterized by a citizenry prepared to engage in visual activism, including rhetorical practices associated with image events.  By "rhetorical education" we mean to invoke a diverse set of processes, only some of which occur within official educational structures.  The classroom is one important site of rhetorical education, and we focus here on how it can be used effectively. 

By theorizing the role of classroom learning in preparing visual activists, we do not mean that we envision a world in which everyone is constantly staging spectacles for mass media coverage.  Instead, we hope to work toward a broader understanding of the image event that includes more localized instances of visual activism.  To characterize the image event, DeLuca usefully focuses on the practices of a few groups such as Greenpeace and Earth First! that have been highly successful in gaining national media exposure.  We would like to extend the application of the image event by suggesting that the project of "deconstruct[ing] the established naming of the world" cannot be left to a small number of organizations.  At a time when access to new media technologies provides more people and organizations the opportunity to create image events, we want to encourage our students to use the image for social change at the local and neighborhood level.  Such micro image events include a woman who posts on her blog a picture of herself that challenges the visual codes employed by Hollywood films or a neighborhood group that publishes on its website video clips whose sequenced images compellingly counter news media representations of urban space.  Such reconfiguring of the ideographs that enforce the status quo needs to be integrated into the daily practices of common citizens.  Everyone has a stake in "writing back" to the dominant culture.


Situating Visual Activism:  Kairos and Context

One of the reasons "image event" is such a fitting concept is that it calls attention to the situated moment.  "Image event" rejects the myth of a stable rhetorical object with a transcendent power that is effective in any situation (the speech that is effective everywhere and for all time because of its formal features and its compelling logic) and embraces a more time-sensitive model in which always-fluxuating contextual factors converge into a happening.  When we confront an event, we are prompted to ask "where and when did it occur"—questions we sometimes forget to ask of rhetorical objects.  Indeed, our forgetting is encouraged by the fact that rhetorical objects often come to us decontextualized (e.g., a presidential speech comes in the form of a transcript, packaged in an anthology of other speeches, the original location of delivery having been erased).  An emphasis on the eventfulness of rhetoric invokes a tradition that is perhaps most visible in discussions of the ancient concept of kairos and the rhetorical situation.  As Carolyn Miller observes, "as the principle of timing or opportunity in rhetoric, kairos calls attention to the nature of discourse as event rather than object"  (310).

Kairos is a complicated word that resists simple definitions.  Eric Charles White usefully unpacks the various metaphors that merge in the concept:

Kairos is an ancient Greek word that means "the right moment'" or "the opportune."  The two meanings of the word apparently come from two different sources. In archery, it refers to an opening, or "opportunity" or, more precisely, a long tunnel-like aperture through which the archer's arrow has to pass. Successful passage of a kairos requires, therefore, that the archer's arrow be fired not only accurately but with enough power for it to penetrate. The second meaning of kairos traces to the art of weaving. There it is "the critical time" when the weaver must draw the yarn through a gap that momentarily opens in the warp of the cloth being woven. Putting the two meanings together, one might understand kairos to refer to a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved. (13)

A particular moment is opportune because there is a convergence of contextual factors.  Thus, as James Kinneavy observers "kairos has much in common with the situational context"  (104).  Lloyd Bitzer, claiming to be the first to address the subject thoroughly, defines a rhetorical situation "as a natural context of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance"  (5).  In Bitzer's model, rhetorical situations have three necessary components: exigence, audience, and constraints.  An exigence is "an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be"  (6).  Therefore, Bitzer's model emphasizes rhetoric as a tool for effecting change:  "a work of rhetoric is pragmatic; it comes into existence for the sake of something beyond itself; it functions ultimately to produce action or change in the world; it performs some task.  In short, rhetoric is a mode of altering reality"  (3-4).  In a perfect world, rhetoric would be unnecessary, because there would be nothing to change.  But  "[i]n our real world . . . rhetorical exigences abound; the world really invites change—change conceived and effected by human agents who quite properly address a mediating audience"  (13).  This emphasis on social agents deploying rhetoric to effect change makes Bitzer's model a fitting starting point for thinking about activist rhetoric.

Bitzer has been criticized for being too linear and objectivist.  In his emphasis on the situation, which "controls the rhetorical response in the same sense that the question controls the answer" (6), and on "objective and publicly observable historic facts in the world we experience" (11), Bitzer seems to shortchange both the agency of the rhetor and the way rhetoric itself functions to create, rather than merely react to, reality.  Richard E. Vatz, in a provocative response, attempts to invert Bitzer's model, claiming that the situation does not lead to a rhetorical intervention, but, instead, a rhetorical intervention creates the situation.  Although Vatz offers an important corrective to what might be called Bitzer's modernist sensitivities, Vatz actually goes too far in the opposite direction, denying altogether the existence of a context outside the rhetor's rhetorical response.  As Vatz acknowledges, this leads to a kind of arbitrariness: "We have 'leaders' or 'bosses,' 'organizations' or 'machines,' and 'education' or 'propaganda' not according to the situation's reality, but according to the rhetor's arbitrary choice of characterization"  (157).  For activists, however, meaning is not arbitrary, but negotiated.   Terms like "leader" or "boss" need to be understood within the social and material situations that shape rhetorical practices and within rhetorical practices that shape those situations.

  Drawing on Eric Charles White and Scott Consigny, Miller describes a "struggle" between the rhetorical intervention of an individual and the given realities of a situation:  "As an art, rhetoric engages the phenomena of concrete experience and itself is engaged by the force of human motivation; it is thus the site of interaction between situation and rhetor" (313).  We would also add, in response to Bitzer's emphasis on constraints, that the moment of rhetorical intervention also contains within it possibilities and affordances, not just limitations.


Materializing Kairos

As we use the term, then, kairos refers to a struggle, at the point of rhetorical intervention, between situational factors—exigence, purpose, audience, and a variety of constraints and affordances—and the rhetor as social agent.  One dimension often missing in discussions of kairos is a focus on the materiality of rhetoric.  It's interesting that the examples Bitzer uses to illustrate his model—presidential speeches, face-to-face dialogue, and newspaper articles—are selected so that issues of materiality are elided.  Activist rhetors do not have access to ready-made public venues and mass media coverage in the way that presidents do, nor do they necessarily have direct access to space in newspapers and magazines.  The activist rhetor who hopes to use rhetoric as a tool for effecting social change has to consider a host of constraints that Bitzer does not address and that are not typically addressed in traditional sites of rhetorical education.

The concept of kairos, as the struggle between rhetors and the contexts within which they operate, can be usefully deployed in theorizing a material rhetoric for activists.  If, as Bitzer claims, "it is the situation which calls the discourse into existence," it is also true that the situation often calls for a particular material instantiation of rhetoric  (2).  Constraints and affordances are often material, necessitating what John Trimbur calls the "blue-collar side of writing"—considerations such as printing, photocopying, stuffing envelopes, and other "legwork" associated with rhetorical interventions  (189).  To be sure, activist rhetors need to make arguments and devise strategies of persuasion, but they also necessarily engage in a struggle with their immediate and extended material context.  They need to use computers and networks, to upload files onto webservers, to borrow video cameras, to negotiate with print shops about the price per copy of a four-color poster, to stand on street corners with fistfuls of flyers.  Traditional models of rhetoric focus on the message, equating clarity and persuasiveness with effectiveness.  Critiques of this model have rightly focused on the way all instances of rhetoric are culturally situated.  Thomas Kent, for instance, has introduced the notion of "hermeneutic guesswork" to describe the interpretive activities communicators need to engage in because all acts of communication are radically situated—no prior patterns or practices have prepared us to make meaning from this particular utterance in this particular context  (3-5).  But attention to the material context introduces another set of considerations.  If one is giving a speech, no amount of hermeneutic guesswork will make up for a passing train that drowns out one's words.

If the president of a neighborhood group needs to warn people about the possibility of lead in their drinking water, she could cheaply accomplish this by posting the information on a webpage.  If she knows a little bit about the application Flash, she might even be able to create a simple animation that memorably illustrates the way lead leaches out of pipes into the tap water.  She might argue that this dynamic visual illustration communicates her message more effectively than the accompanying words.  But what if the residents in her neighborhood don't have access to the Internet?  This material consideration might call for a very different kind of rhetorical intervention—such as an article in the monthly newsletter that gets hand-delivered to each house by volunteers.  (She would make it bright yellow, of course, so residents will notice it stuffed into their doors.) However, material considerations don't stop with this choice of delivery.  She knows that the members of her neighborhood group are busy and might not take the time to read a lengthy article that explores the nuances of how many parts of lead per million will result in how many cases of cancer among a given age group.  She needs to design her message.  She needs to make sure that the gist of it is expressed clearly in 72-point Helvetica Bold right at the top of the page.  She needs to pull out as a bulleted list the main precautions that families with young children should take.  She might include a bar graph that visually represents the difference between the lead content in our pipes and the lead content allowed by the EPA, but she will need to make sure that her graph doesn't differentiate the bars based on color or fancy textures if this newsletter will be photocopied in black and white using an ancient Xerox that renders everything indistinct.

  A number of rhetorical scholars have recently taken up this notion (see, for instance, McComiskey, Russell, Schilb), but John Trimbur addresses it most usefully for our purposes.  Drawing on a Marxist notion of circulation, Trimbur discusses the "cycle of interlocked moments" that includes the production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of writing (190).  Trimbur usefully introduces the concept of circulation from the point of view of the rhetor, pulling an image of circulation from a filmic depiction of a playwright who is "about the busy work of a writer, hurrying around Manhattan, getting copies duplicated and a manuscript delivered"  (189).  This perspective of circulation as a process in which the rhetor plays an active and meaningful role is lost, however, as Trimbur goes on to delineate his model of circulation in more abstract terms.

  Activist rhetors need to make kairotic decisions about modes, media, and the technologies of production, reproduction, and distribution associated with them.  In the example of the neighborhood newsletter, choices of production include the decision to use succinct headlines, bulleted lists, and bar graphs instead of wordy prose; choices related to reproduction include using simple bar graphs that will copy well on an old photocopier; choices of distribution include the decision to use a paper, hand-delivered newsletter rather than an Internet-delivered website.  These choices all point to the kairotic and to dynaton (the possible), reflecting the exigence, audience, purpose, and material constraints of the situation.  As Gunther Kress observes, rhetors need to ask,"[i]n this social and cultural environment, with these demands for communication of these materials, for that audience, with these resources, and given these interests of mine, what is the design that best meets these requirements?" (20; also see Shipka).

  One of the material realities that visual activists need to confront is that images are expensive.  They cost money.  Compared to text, images require more complicated forms of production, reproduction, and delivery.  TV content, for instance, requires cameras, video-editing equipment, directors, producers, camera operators, and the purchase of airtime itself.  The image event is a way of solving these material and economic considerations.  Because it is a product valued by networks—something they can sell to their viewership—networks are willing to pay for image events.  They pay for them by sending reporters and camera crews to cover them and by devoting valuable airtime to them.  To some degree, an image event is a strategy for getting network TV to pick up the tab of producing and distributing a visual text.  But, as DeLuca points out, this comes at a cost to activists because it means that they have to give up some control over their own images.  Media frame image events according to their own capitalistic needs  (DeLuca 87-118).

  This is important if we are to make a move from thinking about image events as always large-scale spectacles to thinking about the possibility of more localized, everyday rhetorical interventions.

  Positioned somewhere between the localized act of a single individual and the large-scale actions of a national organization is an instance of direct action organized by a group of MSU students.  This image event illustrates how kairotic considerations—including decisions about the material—can guide rhetors as they collaboratively stage an image event.


A Case of Visual Activism [1]

As part of a national effort by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano De Aztlan (MEXA) and Students for Economic Justice (SEJ), a local affiliate of USAS, have been working at MSU for five years to convince the university to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).  Membership in the WRC allows for non-partisan oversight into the companies that license the MSU logo.  Specifically, the WRC looks at the factory conditions of the companies that produce the clothing and apparel branded with the MSU logo.  As an oversight body, the WRC provides an important service for human rights campaigns in an era where the factory locations of goods are increasingly difficult to pin down.

In the spring of 2005 the anti-sweatshop campaign at MSU had shifted, in part, from a campaign of direct action and disruption to one of public pressure through the media.  Two institutional changes brought about this partial shift in tactic: (1) a change of university leadership: the resignation of outgoing university president of ten years, Peter McPherson, followed by the appointment of the more publicly responsive university president Lou Anna K. Simon, and (2) a “wider” level of campus and community awareness on the issue, achieved through, in part, a long chain of disruptive direct actions.  In the assessment of the student activists, these developments signaled the approach of a kairotic moment.  In the spring of 2005, then, the focus of the WRC campaign shifted to generate as much press as possible during the first half of the semester.

What we will be looking at is one event in a campaign designed to generate public awareness of and pressure on the anti-sweatshop issue. The immediate rhetorical purpose of each action was the distribution of press coverage in the for-profit media that would help to generate public pressure.  The semester’s end goal was for the university to sign on to the WRC—a goal that was partially achieved on April 8, 2005, when MEXA and SEJ were notified of the president’s intentions to join the WRC.  The complex set of rhetorical practices associated with achieving these immediate and ultimate goals clearly represent a kairotic "struggle"—to use Miller's word—between a set of activist rhetors and their context.  The activists involved in this event maximized the resources available to them at a particular moment and sought out the historical, cultural, and material possibilities afforded by a particular time and place.

The direct action focused on here took place on February 24, 2005.  In this action, for approximately thirty minutes students from MEXA and SEJ "occupied" the first floor of the Hannah Administration Building.  In a well-planned image event, dozens of students (Jim Ridolfo included) entered the main lobby of the Administration Building.  The students then set up a boom box and began to play Salsa music.  Within a matter of seconds, the main lobby of the Hannah Administration Building was transformed from a place of university business to a place of protest: students danced, chanted, and held signs. Folks came out of their offices to see what was transpiring. Within minutes the police had arrived, and reporters began snapping photographs and taking notes.

The occupation of the Administration Building was designed to walk a series of fine lines: the line between a full-fledged sit-in and a typical protest.  Students (Jim Ridolfo included) hoped that this image event would draw the for-profit press to the Administration Building, ultimately leading to favorable coverage—in multiple media (print and Web) and modes (text and photographs)—for the WRC campaign.  In direct rhetorical and physical contrast to the five-year long "slow, stalling pace" of the MSU Administration in signing onto the Worker Rights Consortium, both the rhetorical language MEXA and SEJ supply in the press advisory and the performance of the image event proper provide a radically different visual narrative.  This image event provides an alternate vision, both in the language of the press advisory ("students will dance vigorously") and in the practice of the corporeal dancing that occurred in the space of the Administration Building's main lobby.  Student activists replaced images of protracted inaction that had characterized the administration's approach to worker rights with images of action and movement.

One of the most important and strategic aspects in organizing such an event, aside from the execution of the event itself, is the press advisory and media work that convinces the press such an event is worth covering.  The experienced press advisory writer understands that there is an economic incentive on the part of the reporter to write the news story quickly and on time for a deadline.  For the activist writer, these facts of labor lead to several beneficial strategies for rhetorical distribution via appropriation by reporters.  The newspaper or television station that selects the story does so to sell advertising space in either its pages or channels through the lure of the content offered.  The story is not simply the act of written advocacy by the reporter; the story is also a potential revenue source for the market-driven paper or news station.  In the case of the Administration Building image event, the activist rhetors distributed the press advisory shown in figure 1.1.  This resulted in coverage by three local papers.

The first instance of coverage was from the City Pulse, Lansing's alternative paper, which sent a reporter to cover the event.  The reporter described the dancing as “shake, strut, and salsa,” and the news story was carried online March 2, 2005 (Stegmair).  The student newspaper, The State News, also sent a reporter, and published the story the following day, both in print and online.  The reporter described the dancing as “jived, jumped and boogied” (Jarman).


Press Release


And the major paper of the mid-Michigan region, the Lansing State Journal, chose to send a photographer to the 2 p.m. event but not a reporter.  At 9 p.m., Ridolfo received a call from a writer assigned to the story, asking for a quote.  In the advisory in figure 1.1, take note that Jim Ridolfo (the writer of the advisory) describes the future protest dancing as “vigorous.” In figure 1.2, one can see that the language of the advisory was appropriated by the Lansing State Journal.  The story was published in print and online the following day (February 25, 2005).  It is clear from the use of the word vigorous that the writer, whose name did not accompany the published story (Chris Holmes was the photographer), used the pre/scribed contents of Ridolfo’s advisory, to describe the event using the language Ridolfo had provided.


From the perspective of the reporter, the press advisory may be seen as a useful means in completing the necessary work needed in order to reach a publication deadline in a timely fashion. For the economy of the activist, the appropriation of the document by the media can be measured in terms of both rhetorical and economic success. If, for example, the position is covered effectively and redistributed to the liking of the activist, then the story can be substituted in a formula that calculates the cost of coverage in relationship to the cost that the activist would incur if the delivery of the piece were to be directly paid for in the form of an advertisement, plus the additional ethos and symbolic value that the writing is, in fact not an advertisement. This understanding of networks essentially amounts to an economic strategy of rhetorical delivery and distribution—a kairos where the writer is anticipating the ideal places, moments, and events for rhetorical appropriation.

The activist writer of the press advisory works to theorize the place (conditions) in which appropriation is most ideal: the place of composition (the computer of the reporter) and the place of brainstorming (the printed press advisory in the notebook of the reporter). Furthermore, this concept of kairos moves beyond the initial conditions for appropriation to anticipate the possible representations of the piece in other forms, places, and moments.  In this case, Ridolfo's press advisory was written in such a way that it would both appeal to reporters to be on location for the event and would provide them ready-made content if they were not.

In planning the advisory, the activist writer may be thinking of faxing the advisory, printing copies of the advisory to hand out, emailing the advisory to reporters, or posting the advisory on the organization's website.  Already, the advisory has been theorized through four different media of delivery.  In theorizing rhetorical distribution, the activist writer anticipates that the advisory may become appropriated as part of the body of a newspaper article or be read aloud in an evening news broadcast.  The activist rhetor inductively anticipates the rhetorical sites of delivery, including print newspapers and news websites.

The communicative acts of delivery associated with this one single act of writing may, therefore, be numerous and may move back and forth from analog to digital.  The activist writer rhetorically strategizes delivery and distribution in complex ways, coordinating the advisory of the document in such a manner as to encourage a successful response (e.g., a newspaper or  broadcast reporter showing up to cover an event) using several different communicative technologies (see figure 1.3).



To address the exigence of MSU's continued complicity in unfair labor practices, activist rhetors needed the broader public to put pressure on the university to change its practices.  Although a variety of media venues could conceivably have contributed to this goal, the activist rhetors felt that the most expedient approach at this particular moment in the campaign was to make use of established local media (newspapers).  This coverage was achieved through two initial acts of rhetorical production: the image event itself and the press advisory that preceded it.  For the press advisory to be effective, however, activists needed to make kairotic decisions about the mechanisms of delivery, choosing the redundant strategies of fax and email because they knew those media of delivery would be most effective given the immediate audience (the reporter) situated within a particular institutional economy (a for-profit newspaper).  Each of those media afforded different possibilities, the former having the ethos and visibility of print, the latter lending itself to the composing habits of the reporter.  Activist rhetors in this campaign had to imagine in advance, if not actually plot out, a map of production, distribution, and appropriation like the one shown in figure 1.3.

Because of the kairotic assessments made by the activists rhetors—because they read the situation effectively, seeking out the affordances and negotiating the constraints embedded in this particular moment—the initial, complementary acts of production (the image event and the press advisory) resulted in both alphabetic and photographic coverage in three separate papers with three overlapping but distinct readerships.  Because these papers also publish their content on the web, an additional readership of Internet users was also reached.  Despite limited resources, then, activists rhetors in this case were able to distribute their message to a wide cross section of the local public through multiple modalities (visual and alphabetic) and media (print and web-based newspapers).

            The activists involved could have represented their image event on their own website, bypassing newspapers altogether.  However, kairotic considerations—namely the need to reach the relatively large audience necessary to put significant pressure on MSU—pointed to a different use of new media: getting covered on the websites of established newspapers which already possessed a large readership.

            Finally, it is instructive to compare this complex web of textual circulation with the comparatively simpler and more limited processes of circulation that take place in the traditional writing classroom.  As John Trimbur observes, circulation in the traditional writing class is limited to handing a paper to the teacher. Delivery, for instance, is an "afterthought" reduced to handing a paper to a peer or teacher  (195).  In the following section we re-imagine rhetorical pedagogy in a way that recovers the kind of kairotic decisions about the material that this case of visual activism illustrates.


A Pedagogy of Visual Activism

            A variety of classroom practices can help to prepare students to engage in visual activism.  One approach that we have been exploring in relation to our evolving understanding of visual activism is to have student rhetors address peers who are not enrolled in the same course.  In this model, students form groups focused on social issues.  Their target audience is another group of students—perhaps a group enrolled in a different section of the same course or in a different course that is related in some way (e.g., an upper-level philosophy course that is exploring a related social issue).  Alternatively, students could address peers at a different school altogether or could address writing center tutors.

The crucial point, however, is that rhetors are separated in time and space from their target audience; some form of mediation is necessary and students are forced to confront the material realities of textual circulation.  This is an important departure from the traditional "writing workshop" in which students exchange papers with classmates—the kind of truncated circulation that Trimbur critiques.  Handing a paper to a teacher or peer is an artificial exercise. Activists cannot depend on the co-presence of rhetor and audience; indeed, the fact of being separated in time and place from their target audience is one of the central realities activist rhetors face, and this reality, as we argued earlier, is more difficult to overcome when visual and multimodal semiotic elements are involved because those elements complicate the processes of production, mediation, and distribution.

            Another difference between the approach we are describing and the traditional writing workshop is that the target audience is reading as audience and not solely as a peer composer or tutor who is being asked to make recommendations for revision.  The students addressed in the rhetorical compositions are reading them as participants in a democratic society, as citizens, as members of various and overlapping communities.

            In short, student composers in this approach are asked to assume the role of activist rhetors.  They identify social exigencies about which they are concerned.  Working collaboratively in small groups, they assess the rhetorical situation and devise a plan for addressing those exigences through a rhetorical intervention or set of interventions (campaign).  This means that they have to decide the best possible approach, given this audience, this exigence, and this group of activist rhetors with this particular set of available resources.  A group, for instance, might decide that a three-page brochure is the best mechanism for addressing a particular issue.  Or they might decide that a website would work better.  Or they might decide that some combination of media, modes, and delivery mechanisms is necessary.  Students might, for instance, lead with short, dramatic compositions that feature startling imagery and concise bulleted lists and then follow this up with a more sustained treatment that looks more like a traditional essay.

            One important component of this approach is audience analysis.  In the traditional workshop approach, a student is not motivated to understand peers as audience.  For the writer of a paper that advocated for animal rights, the predispositions of peers about the issue are of secondary relevance. The writer might be paired with other students of like mind or with students who strongly disagree with the writer’s argument.  The job of peer responders, in the traditional workshop approach, is to imagine themselves as the writer’s target audience and to respond as such (and often this results in a generic response or one meant to imitate the instructor's response).  In the approach we're describing, however, student rhetors are asked to map their audience and address them particularly.  Students devise instruments for understanding their audience and the forums in which they will be participating.  Rhetors could, for instance, create a survey that asks members of a prospective audience to describe their views on a given social issue and to articulate the core values on which those views are based.  The audience, in turn, is not asked to imagine that it is being addressed—it is explicitly addressed by the composition.

In Image Politics, DeLuca demonstrates that an appreciation of the effectiveness of a given image event depends on a sophisticated understanding of the complex reading practices of the target audience.  DeLuca cites "audience reception research" that demonstrates that the attempts of media to frame image events in ways that reinforce the dominant culture are only partially successful  (93).  To some extent, the images speak for themselves, despite the verbal narratives that surround them  (93, 100-101).  In the approach that we are outlining, students can perform their own audience reception research.  That is, they can devise instruments for discovering the reading practices of their target audience to see what combination of modes, media, and rhetorical strategies were most effective.  They might learn, for instance, that their readers only skimmed their five-page essay because it was boring but were moved by a strategically chosen photograph embedded in a poster.

            We hope that it is clear in this description how this approach addresses the problems related to the impoverished model of the composing process employed in many writing classes.  In our model, students are not asked simply to write papers. They are confronted with exigences and are asked to make assessments of modes, media, and technologies associated with them in order to address those exigences effectively.  These assessments reflect the kairos—the particular opportunities that arise from a particular constellation of audience, purpose, and other contextual factors.  Further, students are also asked to confront the problem of delivery.  They cannot merely hand their compositions to their audience because their audience is not physically present.  Here, the instructors for each course involved become collaborators, not enablers.  An instructor might be asked, for instance, to deliver a brochure or web address.

            Some might argue that the ability to ask an instructor to collaborate in this way undermines the model's claim to echo the real-world conditions of being actively engaged in civic and social matters. We would argue, however, that activism involves seeking out collaborators, including contacts who can help with the process of delivery.  If an individual wants to get a newsletter to a neighborhood group, she might contact an officer of the group and ask him or her to hand out the newsletter the next time the group meets.  All situations have their constraints and resources.

            Another key component of this approach is the kind of meta-discursive activities students engage in.  We imagine asking students to develop a portfolio in which they not only collect the rhetorical compositions that they have produced over the semester but also collect reflections on these compositions that provide an account of decisions about mode, media, and rhetorical strategy that link these decisions to the data they have collected in their audience analyses and also create a narrative that explains how they revised their approach based on the reception of a given composition, so the next composition was informed by what was learned in the previous one.

Finally, readers of this collection might have noticed that the pedagogy we have described does not focus specifically on visual activism.  Instead, this approach foregrounds decisions about mode, media, and technologies as kairotic choices.  We feel that it is a mistake to artificially limit students to a particular semiotic mode.  Our approach asks students to consider, at the point of each intervention, whether visual or other modes are appropriate and to account for their decision.



            A visual culture necessitates a theory and practice of visual activism. The image event, as theorized by DeLuca, offers a compelling category of rhetorical practice that operationalizes visuality.  We envision a pedagogy that empowers students to critically engage with institutions and the broader culture by deploying image events, though this vision is dependent on the conception of the image event as a set of practices that range from national news events to local and everyday gestures. 

Rhetorical education is one starting point for situating the image event on a general "grid of intelligibility" (to borrow one of DeLuca's phrases)—that is, for building a shared understanding of image events as appropriate and legitimate forms of rhetorical intervention.  If rhetorical education is to play this role, it will need to create learning environments in which students develop a critically engaged approach to the cultural-material situations they enter into.  They will need to be sensitive to kairos—not as windfall opportunities that capriciously happen upon them but as "site[s] of interaction between situation and rhetor" (Miller 313).  As a micro image event, MEXA and SEJ's "occupation" of the MSU Administration Building lobby provides an important glimpse of what this interaction looks like, suggesting that it is not merely a socio-symbolic struggle, but a material one as well.  To engage opportunities at a particular moment, MEXA and SEJ needed more than eloquence and persuasiveness.  They needed to critically interrogate the material affordances and constraints latent in their local sphere of action.  This required a willingness to confront an array of details that rhetorical education has historically ignored: details like the relative virtues of fax machines compared to email, and the tedious twists and turns that documents might take if their journey into the world is launched by one instead of the other.  To realize the full potential of visual activism, rhetorical education will need to turn its attention to these details concerning the relationship between the visual and the material.


Works Cited

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DeLuca, Kevin Michael.  Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism.  New York: The Guilford Press, 1999.

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[1] A version of this section appeared in Jim Ridolfo's Masters Thesis, Rhetoric, Economy, and the Technologies of Activist Delivery.