Visual Rhetoric Research Paper

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Defining visual rhetoric can be a simple task, but its evolution as a research topic in the communication discipline is more complicated. At face value, the term visual rhetoric encompasses two meanings. First, visual rhetoric can be defined in artifactual terms, as rhetorical expression in visual form. To design an advertisement, create a protest sign, draw a political cartoon, practice photography as a commentary on social issues— all these examples of persuasive expression qualify as visual rhetoric in that they feature some visual image or form that functions to influence or convey meaning.



Some examples may include verbal elements, but in visual rhetoric the visual image is the central component of the message.A cartoon, for example, may include labels or dialogue, an advertisement is more likely than not to have some explanatory copy, and a photograph usually is accompanied by a caption or a story. But all these verbal elements are structured around a visual image, an image that conveys its own message and may prompt a response or reaction from the viewer. Sometimes the visual element stands alone. In these cases, the viewer may respond with an emotional reaction to the image, or the image may prompt specific associations. These examples of visually oriented messages fit the definition of rhetoric in that they are instrumental, public, intended for an audience, and situated; take symbolic form; and have potentially persuasive effects. Production courses in media or graphic design classes are concerned with the creation of visual rhetoric in much the same fashion as public-speaking courses teach students how to create effective verbal rhetoric.

But the communication discipline also treats rhetoric as a public message and process that constitutes meaning, meaning that may illuminate cultural and civic values as well as provide insight into historical and contemporary strategies of persuasion. In this framework, visual rhetoric incorporates an analytic pursuit rather than an applied, creative activity. The demands and functions of communication courses on rhetorical theory and criticism address this analytic perspective. Therefore, the term visual rhetoric also refers to the effort to understand and theorize rhetoric that occurs in visual form or involves the practice of visualization. In this sense, visual rhetoric has been said to operate as a mode of inquiry, a way of looking at images that is different from art history, aesthetics, or other ways of interpreting and assessing visual images and the processes of seeing. Visual rhetoric, as an analytic pursuit, guides us toward an understanding of the ways in which visual artifacts construct and create meaning. More recently, that pursuit also questions the effects of looking. In other words, rhetoricians are concerned with not only how images appear, or what implicit or explicit strategies of persuasion are invoked, but also how they are looked at.

To engage in the study of visual rhetoric is not only to exercise a particular mode of inquiry but also to implicitly argue for a definition of that mode—rhetoric—that goes beyond the traditional boundaries of public address and the spoken word and considers the force and potential generated by visual and material forms. Visual rhetoric broadens the definition of public discourse to include all variety of messages. Visual rhetoric invites us to consider not just the speeches of presidents, for example, but also the social effects of their “photo opportunities.”Visual rhetoric invites us to think about the meanings generated by or reflected in political cartoons and photojournalism during a presidential campaign, not just the speeches and commentary by and about candidates on the campaign trail. Visual rhetoric invites us to consider how historical figures might be depicted in photographs—and how that might affect public memory of those figures—and not just analyze their appeals made in speeches. Visual rhetoric acknowledges that in a media-saturated age, our persuasive environment is as much about pictures as it is about words.

This duality between the practice of visual rhetoric and the analysis of visual rhetoric mirrors the history of the speech communication discipline, in which an initial concern with teaching the practice of public address as a development of skills was joined by a concern with the analysis of speeches. Today, although many courses in rhetorical theory and criticism taught within the communication discipline still focus on speeches, scholars are increasingly interested in the application of rhetorical principles to artifacts that have visual form or some sort of visual component or structure. The communication discipline is characterized by a wide range of pursuits that encompass both the development of practical skills and the liberal arts tradition of enhancing skills at critical thought.

In this essay, I provide a historical overview of the evolution of research in visual rhetoric that addresses and illuminates the second definition of visual rhetoric: the critical and theoretical examination of rhetoric that incorporates or exists as a visual form. The roots of visual rhetoric derive jointly from inquiries about the mass media and from a more general evolution of thought in the humanities. But both approaches had to overcome the long-standing bias toward language and against images in the communication discipline and in Western thought.

Theoretical Foundations in Visual Rhetoric

Speech Communication and Rhetoric

The analysis of visual rhetoric was initially explored as a subset of the larger arena of rhetorical studies. In their exploratory studies of visual images, scholars called on many of the theories and methodological tools we had developed for the study of language. To describe the study of visual rhetoric as an exact mirror of the traditional study of verbal oratory—as if images were “visual speeches”— has proved limiting, however, and does not entirely reflect the aims of current scholarship in the subject. The emergence of visual rhetoric as a scholarly concern has also occurred in a different academic context from the one that informed and developed the speech communication discipline early in the 20th century. The postmodern turn in more recent rhetorical studies lends complexity and richness to the study of visual rhetoric. Since scholarly concern with visual rhetoric is relatively recent, current theory is positioned between applications of traditional rhetorical theories (which many scholars still find useful) and the development of emerging theories that attempt to address the particulars of visualizing practices.

While the study of speeches grew from a single critical perspective that had its roots in Aristotelian principles, and then generated additional theoretical and methodological perspectives that students learn today, the study of visual rhetoric has developed in the context of rhetoric’s rich theoretical developments of recent decades and at a time when academic thought reaches across, and is influenced by, other disciplines. Rhetorical study is also deeply influenced by the cross-disciplinary concerns of cultural studies. All these dynamics bring complexity to the study of visual rhetoric and also provide more workable tools than a traditional, Aristotelian approach might have provided.

Since serious and close analysis of the visual has a comparatively recent history within the communication discipline, compared with the study of oratory, relevant theory is still in a stage of development, and there are multiple views on how visual rhetoric should be studied or even defined. Although this situation can lead to controversy, it also creates exciting possibilities for study and learning. Students may consider themselves fortunate if they have teachers and classes that address this vital and contemporary subject in communication, and few areas of communication research offer as many connections to other disciplines as does the study of visual rhetoric and visual culture. In discussing visual rhetoric, we begin by charting the pioneering efforts at visual communication studies, the obstacles encountered by such studies, and how those studies have evolved in the short time we have benefited from rhetoric’s “visual turn.” In the next few sections, I will describe the development of visual rhetoric as overcoming obstacles in intellectual thought, its disciplinary roots in media studies that led to organized responses to visual communication, and the influence of the general humanities that has taken visual rhetoric beyond some of the constraints of using theories and methodologies adapted from the study of verbal rhetoric.

Antivisual Attitudes

That communication scholarship has only pursued the study of visual rhetoric in the past three decades is noteworthy, especially considering that visual images and visualization have been an important component of human activity for centuries. As David D. Perlmutter (1999), who has written extensively on news photography, observed, “We are homos iconis by our very nature, sight-driven animals that receive 90 percent of the data we collect and organize about the world through our eyes.” Humans are also the only animals who consciously and routinely create images to communicate with others.

When unknown Stone Age humans picked up pigments and tools to depict hunting and battle scenes on the walls of caves, they were engaging in the production of visual culture, which has increased with each new technological development that facilitates the circulation and reception of images. Paul Messaris, in his books on visual communication, describes how some aspects of our interpretation of images, especially the connections between camera angles and notions of power, stem from childhood experiences.

Postmodern thinkers also point to the importance of sight as a sense-making human activity, although some think of this phenomenon as more significant now than in the past. Martin Jay (1991) has used the term ocularcentrism to indicate the centrality of vision and visual images in contemporary society. In short, theorists have argued for the importance of images and imaging in human cognition and communication, and it remains fairly irrelevant whether ocularcentrism is limited to contemporary contexts or describes the historical human condition. Images are pervasive in our world as we live in it and as we have lived in it for some time. The invention of photography and the development of media technologies have only enhanced the appeal and power of images for us. But if images have always been with us, and their increase is tied to innovations in printing, film, television, and electronic communication, why has it taken so long for the communication discipline to embrace their study?

Part of the answer lies in long-standing cultural and historical attitudes that regard visual images with suspicion. Major religions warn against the dangers of idolatry or sacrilegious offense that attend the creation of images. As one example, violent protests ensued around the world when Muhammed, the spiritual leader of Muslims, was depicted in some provocative political cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in 2004. The issue continues to surface periodically in the tense political and cultural climate of our contemporary world. Although it didn’t help matters that cartoon depictions are generally satiric and irreverent, any depiction of the holy figurehead of the Muslim religion is forbidden and considered offensive.

In ancient Greece, Plato cautioned about the divide between authentic experience and its visual simulation as shadowed images cast on a wall. During the 20th-century scholarship on visual images from thinkers as varied as Ernest Gombrich, Rudolph Arnheim, Walter Benjamin, and Roland Barthes began to influence and encourage work in the humanities on visual symbolism, semiotics, and iconology, as did the work of many critical writers on photography. Theoretical work in the larger field of the humanities would later shape contemporary studies in visual rhetoric.Within the communication field, the development of the study of visual rhetoric owes much to media scholars, who often voiced concern about the dominance of the visual in a public realm increasingly dominated by technological changes and a proliferation of mediated communication forms and channels

Long after we accepted film and television images as major influences in the construction of social realities, resistance to the place of the visual in this environment continued. The apparent dominance of the visual image as a tool of meaning making in society has continued to be met with skepticism about its adequacy and value in various social and cultural discourses.

This skeptical attitude is rooted in Aristotelian principles of rhetoric, which privilege logic and reasoning as the highest and best forms of public communication and persuasion. Logic and reasoning have been associated with the spoken word, while visual images are equated with emotional appeals. Emotional appeals are powerful rhetorical strategies that offer rhetors the ability to subvert the grounds of logic and rationality. In this manner of seeing images, they all too easily function as instruments of deception and propaganda, whether it’s in the form of altered photographs circulated by totalitarian regimes or photo opportunities for U.S. presidents that seek to associate the politician with favorable images of masculine power to gain public acclaim. The pictorial images of public leaders projected by photography, films, and television are frequently interpreted as shallow, simplistic, and manipulative distractions from the complicated issues and policy questions of the political sphere, mere spectacles that entertain more than they inform. In this sense, appearance not only triumphs over reality, it becomes a new and false reality.

Because visual images are often seen as more manipulative than verbal speeches, many media and argumentation scholars initially regarded the visual realm with a negative view, claiming that the functions of visual images were limited and subordinate to the function of language. It is easy to dismiss images in politics and public discourse as mere spectacle, opportunities for entertainment rather than engagement, because visual images transfix us so readily. The question of whether a presidential candidate wears an American flag pin (sending a visual message of patriotic devotion) can triumph over real discussion of issues in today’s public sphere. Similarly, politicians are at least as likely to employ managed photo opportunities to create an impression as they are to speak from the bully pulpit with facts, figures, and rational arguments. In heightening the value of the verbal over the visual, sometimes we forget that not all verbal messages are rational, as politicians and advocates also speak strategically with code terms, buzz words, and glittering generalities.

Besides treating the value of a visual message with skepticism, another common academic response to visual images was to regard them as merely ancillary to verbal texts or explanations. In other words, either visual messages were thought to overpower more rational thinking or they were considered to be inconsequential compared with written and spoken words. These responses may seem contradictory, but both are dismissive of the visual and have contributed to a historical lack of critical thought about visual images. At the same time, those who held concerns about the media’s relationship with culture were motivated to call for instruction in “visual literacy” so that students would be better able to think critically about problematic rhetorical artifacts. Thus, pedagogical tools such as Killing Us Softly (1979) and Dreamworlds (1990), two films that deconstruct the visual elements of advertising and music videos, respectively, responded to the concern over the assumed powers of visual persuasion. The relationship between visual images and formal argument was later explored in a special issue of the journal Argumentation and Advocacy, published in 1996.

The Prospect of Rhetoric Reconsidered

At its beginning, the study of visual rhetoric was initially rooted, in part, in the interests and concerns of media, advertising, and journalism scholars who were concerned about the social effects of visually oriented messages. Scholars of rhetoric shared some of these concerns about mediated visual messages but were also influenced by a shift in the 1960s over the appropriate practice of rhetorical scholarship from a task rooted in historical study to a task that should address and critique contemporary rhetorical discourse. The significant effects on society of social movements in the 1960s and 1970s lent a sense of urgency to expanding the scope of rhetorical studies beyond historical speeches to an embrace of more contemporary forms. Visual and mediated presentations were common elements of contemporary rhetoric, and television was making an enormous impact in the exchange of political messages. Rhetorical scholars realized that their analytic tools could aid in understanding many symbolic expressions besides speeches that were creating significant public meaning. The rhetorical actions spawned by social movements anchored the study of visual rhetoric to the visual or material artifact, both in form and in function.

One might argue that the visual has always potentially been an appropriate subject for rhetorical analysis, especially if we look to Aristotle’s admonition to use the “available means of persuasion” in the inventional process. In the 20th century, Kenneth Burke’s influential writings on rhetoric strongly suggested that visual forms qualified as symbolic action, a bedrock term that defined rhetorical expression in Burkean terms. But until a period of cultural unrest over the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Vietnam War, and other social change movements drew attention to widening modes of discourse, attention to the visual by rhetoric scholars was not evident.

A key turning point in the direction of rhetorical studies came in 1971, with a position statement that was part of an endeavor by the Speech Communication Association to reassess the field of rhetoric. The report called for a broadening of the scope of rhetorical criticism to include the many types of expression that were becoming common in the public dialogues on social change. Although visual expression was not specifically listed, it was clearly consistent with the “institutional and cultural symbols” that were hailed by the report’s authors as the appropriate province of rhetorical study. Not only did the Wingspread Conference, as it was known, prompt initial publication of scholarship on visual rhetoric, but other scholars such as Kathleen J. Turner and Cara Finnegan have, in reflective essays, more recently continued to affirm the value of the “visual turn” in rhetoric and public address studies.

Methods and Applications of Visual Rhetoric

Visual Rhetoric Research in the 1970s and 1980s

The Wingspread Conference call for attention to new forms of rhetorical expression was met in the 1970s and 1980s with new critical analysis of various forms of visual texts from media and popular culture sources. Kathleen J. Turner (in 1977) and Michael DeSousa and Martin J. Medhurst (in 1982) published essays on comic strips and editorial cartoons in which they applied familiar rhetorical perspectives to graphic forms that mixed visual imagery with verbal elements. Medhurst joined with Thomas Benson to edit the seminal volume Rhetorical Dimensions in Media (1984). Both Medhurst and Benson had applied rhetorical concepts to films, and Rhetorical Dimensions in Media, in its three editions, discussed a range of media artifacts, most of them in visual form, although the book was not specifically labeled as an exploration of visual rhetoric. Similarly, Bruce E. Gronbeck explored the rhetoric of political advertising and documentary films, again taking a perspective that merged the visual and verbal elements of certain political artifacts into a cohesive message.Although these early studies varied in their specific attention to visual elements, the focus on visualized texts was new and important.

Because of their context in political discourse, editorial cartoons provided a compelling site in which to examine visual rhetoric. In addition to Medhurst and DeSousa, and the articles on political cartoons published in Rhetorical Dimensions in Media, Denise Bostdorff applied Burkean critical methodology to cartoons about a controversial U.S. Secretary of the Interior in an essay published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech. Bostdorff’s analysis demonstrated that cartoons, in their combined visual and verbal manifestations that turned on irony and satire, operated from Burke’s idea on perspective by incongruity. Lester C. Olsen addressed the visual, specifically, in his studies of artifacts of the American colonial period and posters that illustrated FDR’s “Four Freedoms,” identifying iconology as a central motivator in visual rhetoric. Each of these scholars drew in some way from existing critical methodologies and aesthetic theory and applied them to visual subjects. Along the way, artifacts such as posters and editorial cartoons were positioned as rhetorical texts, broadening the definition of rhetoric, which had been grounded in platform speeches.

Another important scholar who championed visual rhetoric at this time was Sonja K. Foss, whose interest in visual rhetoric pedagogy and inventive and informed investigations of a range of visual artifacts inspired emerging scholars to take up the visual as a critical subject. Foss examined visual and material artifacts as disparate as works of art, furniture, architecture, and memorials. But in the course of making applications of critical methodologies, she also began to investigate how visual artifacts suggested new approaches and methodologies beyond those that had been developed in response to the study of speeches. Foss’s analysis of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1986), along with the writings of others on the subject in the 1980s, also guided the discipline’s subsequent, significant attention to the rhetorical and symbolic aspects of memorials as visual and material artifacts.

Organizing the Conversation on Visual Rhetoric

In the late 1980s, Sonja K. Foss, Marla Kanengieter, Raymie McKerrow, and several others who were interested in the intersections and applications of rhetoric to visual images formed a new unit of the National Communication Association (NCA) devoted to visual communication. Although this NCA division represents the full range of perspectives on visual communication studies, including media and visual literacy, visual rhetoric has occupied an important area of research within the NCA’s Visual Communication Division.

Similarly, an informal group of scholars who have convened for a summer conference on visual communication, known as VIZCOM, for the past 22 years has included visual rhetoric as a subject focus, in addition to other perspectives on the study of images. While individual scholarship has helped shape and define the area of visual rhetoric, collaboration and conversation among scholars at conferences and within organizations have advanced visual studies significantly.Although, in some respects, visual rhetoric is still informed by the larger sphere of visual communication and visual studies—particularly photojournalism and media studies, the development of visual rhetoric in the discipline also owes something to developing theory in the humanities.

The Pictorial Turn in the Humanities

W. J. T. Mitchell, a professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago and editor of the noted interdisciplinary journal Critical Inquiry, addressed the question of visual images in a number of publications, notably the book Picture Theory: Essays in Verbal and Visual Representation (1995). Noting the burgeoning work of theorists addressing images that represent varying perspectives including philosophy, art history, cultural studies, photography studies, and semiotics, Mitchell proposed that these studies signaled a transforming “pictoral turn” in the humanities, a turn away from preoccupation with language to development of a range of concepts related to images and visuality.

One important aspect of Mitchell’s argument has been that visual meaning is not predicated on language.Although this view is somewhat controversial, it opened the door to broader assessments of meaning connected to visual form, not just grounded in verbal language, although we often use “language” as a conceptual metaphor to describe visual meaning.

Another important aspect of Mitchell’s argument is identification of the rhetorical nature of the visual. In this respect, images (and their received meanings)—as well as human patterns or habits of seeing—are not defined as natural and universal. Rather, they are situated in historical, social, and cultural contexts and are deeply influenced by those contexts in their construction, uses, and interpretations. They are rhetorical texts in that they express and constitute cultural norms. The effects of images are thus highlighted, along with the strategies of image making. As one writer puts it, visual rhetoric “is concerned not only with how images look, but how they are looked at.”

The idea that images affect a viewer’s response within a prescribed cultural mode was also famously argued by John Berger in this classic book Ways of Seeing (1972). It is worth noting that images, even when we see them as discrete texts, are often looked at in conjunction with other texts, both visual and verbal, expanding the possibilities of meaning. And yet, as elements of culture may dominate the social order, so too may visual images provide a prevailing cultural construction. This construction is called a scopic regime, an ordering of experience influenced by a hegemony expressed through visuality and socially ratified images. For example, the preponderance of female nudes in Western art and the relative absence of male nudes is regarded as a scopic regime that expresses a male-dominated culture that objectifies women.

For Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard, a concern with images is complicated by their resemblance to “reality” and their capacity for reproduction. Baudrillard (1988), in particular, argues that we possess an inability to distinguish between what is real and not real and that all experience is now simulated (or simulacra) because we live in a scopic regime that encourages seeing the world as reflected and contained in images. Cultural critics, postmodern theorists, and other thinkers who shaped Mitchell’s idea of the “pictorial turn” in the humanities continue to influence scholars engaged in visual rhetoric.

Studying Visual Rhetoric as Rhetoric

Although advances in the humanities have informed the study of visual rhetoric, its development in the communication discipline was initially and necessarily situated in the broader concerns of established rhetorical theories within the communication discipline. Extrapolating from research published in the 1970s and 1980s, we could say that the study of visual rhetoric closely resembled the study of oratory and public address, as scholars largely employed existing tools and methodologies to visual artifacts in the same way they had been applied to speeches. This strategy was understandable given that it was grounded in the traditions of rhetorical theory and criticism and illuminated the places where visual and verbal forms shared rhetorical features. Moreover, as previously noted, visual images are rarely entirely separated from a context that may include a verbal aspect.

The application of standard rhetorical methods to visual artifacts continued in the 1980s and into the 1990s with the publication of additional work on political cartoons, as one example. Edward H. Sewell (1986) and Janis L. Edwards (in 1997) both examined cartoons as narratives. Taking an approach more closely tied to the visual elements of cartoons, Edwards and Winkler (1997) argued for certain political cartoons as representative forms that functioned as ideographs, a theory that had been previously applied to verbal terms in discourse. Edwards (1997) and Kaplan (1990) discussed visual metaphor in the contexts of cartoons and advertising, respectively. In the emerging research, no one method of analysis proved to be dominant. Instead, visual images seemed organized around many of the features that constructed spoken rhetoric. Existing methods of analysis proved applicable to images in ways that suggested that rhetorical theory could encompass visual as well as verbal expressions. Other scholars published early work that examined political advertising (another confluence of verbal and visual elements) and films.

In 1996, Argumentation and Advocacy’s special issue on visual argument (was such a thing possible?), which set forth some theoretical assumptions about rhetoric in visual form, helped bring visual rhetoric further into the mainstream of rhetorical study.

Expanding the Range of Artifacts

The adaptability of rhetorical studies to the visual was also demonstrated by a growing interest in memorial architecture and material culture, combined with a cross-disciplinary focus on memory studies. Investigations of symbolic architecture and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Foss and others in the 1980s and the work by Carole Blair and associates on memorials as embodied rhetoric have inspired visual rhetoric scholars to extend their ideas of “the visual” beyond the concept of the image and join visual studies to other interdisciplinary concerns.

The 1990s brought critical attention to visual texts such as civil rights memorials, Gilded Age homes, patriotic medals, archival photographs, and photojournalism, a continuation of subjects with strong visual aspects that were appropriately defined and studied as visual rhetoric. The publication of Barbie Zelizer’s critical examination of Holocaust photography, Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera’s Eye, in 1998 was a critical moment that validated and inspired visual studies in rhetoric, especially as related to photography. Like Paul Messaris’s 1996 book on visual literacy and advertising, Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising, Zelizer’s book won the NCA’s DiamondAnniversaryAward for the outstanding book in the discipline.

Expanding the Scope of Visual Analysis

After nearly two decades of scholarly exploration in visual rhetoric, new courses in visual communication have been developed at any number of communication programs. Although not all these courses specifically address the visual from a rhetorical perspective, and emerging textbooks have explored visual images from a range of media and cultural studies perspectives, the larger context of “visual communication” assisted in the development of visual rhetoric as both a research and a pedagogical area.

At the same time, scholars began to reinvent the study of visual rhetoric. Most scholarship on visual rhetoric had approached images and material artifacts by using established critical tools and concepts to examine the strategic rhetorical choices evidenced within the image or structure. Subsequent scholarship, influenced by broader debates in the humanities and cultural studies, began to look at visual rhetoric in terms of its broader dynamics of production, circulation, and reception, reaching beyond the standard methods of rhetorical criticism to generate a more inductive approach to the visual.

For example, Rose (2001) argues that a methodological framework for the critical interpretation of images can address three sites of meaning: the site of production of the image, the site of the image itself, and the site of reception by audiences. Each of these sites is also governed by three modalities: technological, compositional, and social. Rose’s framework points to an accepted expansion of the traditional focus of rhetorical criticism on strategies evident within a text, but it also acknowledges the rhetorical tradition’s interest in history. Again, the 1995 publication of W. J. T. Mitchells’s book Picture Theory: Essays in Verbal and Visual Representation, along with other philosophic investigations of visuality as a societal construct, seemed to have ignited the new perspective on engagement with visual rhetoric. Among the scholarly endeavors taking up more holistic perspectives was Kevin DeLuca’s 1999 examination of the rhetoric of environmental organizations, Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism, which argued for engagement with the contemporary visual dominance of the public sphere. Cara Finnegan, in Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (2003, also an NCA Diamond Anniversary Award winner), has influenced scholarship in visual rhetoric by highlighting circulation as a key critical issue in visuality and visual studies.

More recent research has incorporated a broader sense of visual rhetoric than singular or generic images, tapping into postmodern theories to study the practices and inducements of visualization. Circulation, appropriation, and rhetorical function provided themes for a series of studies by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites on iconic examples of photojournalism. Image appropriation—where rhetors visually reference or reproduce existing images in new contexts—was discussed by Hariman and Lucaites (2007) in the book-length version of their studies in iconic photographs, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photography, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy.

Edwards and Winkler (1997) earlier focused on image appropriation, examining how political cartoonists frequently employed Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima to comment on assorted military or political efforts. Lester Olson and James Kimble evaluated a familiar poster from World War II titled “We Can Do It!” which features a woman factory worker, her arm upraised and hand rolled into a fist. Not only has this image been appropriated in a wide range of artifacts that reference feminism, politics, and other topics, but Olson and Kimble note that viewers commonly incorrectly identify the image as an official illustration pertaining to “Rosie the Riveter,” the popular designation for wartime female factory workers in that era. Familiar images thus become inventional resources that cartoonists, advertisers, and other media producers employ for rhetorical effect.

Hariman and Lucaites further located their discussions on the civic function served by familiar and frequently appropriated photographs that marked significant cultural moments. As of this writing, Hariman and Lucaites continue the conversation on the function of images within liberal democracy by maintaining a blog (with pictures) named after their book, No Caption Needed.

Much of the visual rhetoric research in the new millennium has followed a more integrated and holistic approach than the textual analysis that marked early efforts to analyze the visual. A number of scholars have, for instance, considered the iconology of visual aspects of commemorative works regarding World War II and other sites of national memory. Investigation of memorials as significant rhetorical artifacts of commemoration continues to engage communication scholars. Processes of production, circulation, and reception of images and artifacts have become part of the investigation of the visual, adding to the project of textual analysis.

Future Directions for Visual Rhetoric

Visual Rhetoric Prospects

To speak of future directions for visual rhetoric is ironic because visual rhetoric has occupied the cutting edge of rhetorical studies in the three decades it has engaged scholars in communication research. Still, as we have seen, the path of studies in visual rhetoric has evolved as the defining characteristics of visual rhetoric have been redefined. Additionally, the evolution of thought on visual rhetoric mirrors the evolution of rhetorical studies into a cultural studies mode. The emphasis on memory studies and rhetoric is just the most evident feature of this stage of inquiry. Lawrence Prelli’s important volume The Rhetorics of Display (2006) positioned both the visual and the verbal within the rhetorical notion of display.

Still, visual rhetoric looks ahead to new concerns. At the 2008 Kern Conference on Visual Rhetoric and Technology, each panelist who spoke on future directions cited Internet imagery and its circulation as a growing area of visual rhetoric inquiry. Although attention to fixed images and more traditional technologies has not been exhausted, the imaging associated with new technologies is moving ahead as a scholarly concern.

This situation does not mean that textual analysis of images is passé. Application of existing rhetorical principles to images still potentially reveals much about the place of visual images in the context of rhetorical invention. The range of images in the public sphere presents many new avenues for study, and the developing ideas on cultural critical analysis offer the promise of additional insight into the visual, and the defining features of rhetoric. Some areas of communication research remain understudied in terms of images. For example, we consider images as a crucial component of political discourse today, yet studies of images in political contexts are few and are generally limited to televisual effects. While there has been some attention to political cartoons, political photography has been seriously neglected as an aspect of rhetorical investigation.

Visual rhetoric has proven to be a richly developing area of study within the communication discipline. Although the journals that deal specifically with the visual tend to fall outside the boundaries of rhetorical study, journals such as Photographies, Visual Communication, and Visual Communication Quarterly offer material on related research in media images, and rhetoric journals such as Quarterly Journal of Speech have demonstrated an openness to visual rhetoric. However, visual rhetoric still encounters obstacles to continued development in knowledge and understanding.

Visual Rhetoric Problems

The rapid evolution of visual rhetoric scholarship is energizing, but also inhibiting, as theory and definition move forward rapidly, without adequate time to reflect on and refine research perspectives. Pedagogy also seems to lag behind research in this area, as spoken rhetoric dominates textbooks on public address and rhetorical theory and criticism. While many professors include discussions of the visual in their rhetoric courses, and relevant research is presented to students, this component of rhetoric is limited largely to faculty who have a special interest in the topic. As Olson (2007) noted, institutionalized concentrations on visual rhetoric are virtually absent, given the handful of interdisciplinary “visual culture” or “visual studies” institutional programs, discounting graduate and undergraduate study in the area and limiting collaboration.

Another factor that is both potentially enriching and inhibiting is the disjointed nature of visual studies within communication. Examination of the visual continues to be harbored in subareas of the discipline, such as rhetoric, media studies and production, and journalism. The multiple perspectives on visual communication bring diverse viewpoints and insights, but discussions of specific areas are not always seen as relevant to other areas. While visual rhetoric may borrow from or cross over to visual media studies, the field of rhetoric still promotes concerns other than media, advertising, or visual intelligence studies, leading to “Balkanization” of visual studies within the communication discipline.

As Olson also noted, there is still resistance to rhetorical studies of the visual from traditionalists in the field. The focus on oratory as rhetorical study’s central concern is embedded in the discipline, particularly at specific institutions where, Olson maintains, such attitudes may influence future directions for rhetorical study by limiting attention to artifacts and dynamics other than historically significant speeches. While published research does not reflect this bias, it is evident in the pedagogical materials and structures of rhetorical study.

Visual rhetoric’s robust incursion into the communication discipline is demonstrated by the emerging collections of research, both original and republished, listed in the Bibliography: section of this essay, as well as by scholarly interest in the topic. It is hoped that this interest will translate to greater pedagogical development as we move forward in a world where images dominate our public sphere and accompany much of our discourse. While some may still look with derision at the visual as an empty spectacle, it is important to understand how visual rhetoric acts on us and in our world to create, assist, and circulate meaning.


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  4. DeLuca, K. M. (1999). Image politics: The new rhetoric of environmental activism. New York: Guilford Press.
  5. DeLuca, K. M. (2006). The speed of immanent images: The dangers of reading photographs. In D. S. Hope (Ed.), Visual communication: perception, rhetoric, and technology (pp. 79–90). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
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