Visual Rhetoric: Moving forward

I chose the Applications & Pedagogy week for my class presentation because it fits neatly into the larger plan I have for what I’ve hoped to get from this course: better application of visual rhetorical theory for my ENGL 1101 or 1102 students.  And by better, I mean introducing visual rhetoric at all.


I’ve avoided visual composition assignments because I wanted them to have a point. Because so much of my own experience in composition, both as a composer and as a student of its instruction, has been concerned with the verbal, taking on the visual has always seemed out of reach because I lacked the context of why my students should care or how they could benefit. As Brumberger astutely explains, “Most of our students have learned to talk – as we have – in verbal language, not in visual language” (378). I figured I would stick to the territory I knew I could cover and contextualize for them, thus I kept to verbal composition objectives and projects.

This was an especially frustrating compromise for me, having had a brief career in the graphic communications industry as a typographic, layout, and graphic designer. I knew personally the value of effective visual communication, and that there was plenty of theory on how to construct it, but I saw nothing I could use to link it to a composition course. Imagine my enthusiasm when I read Anne Wysocki’s suggestion that the incorporation of visual rhetoric into a writing class should not be undertaken based on the principals of graphic design alone; it is rare that you will locate justification for visual design elements based on rhetorical lines. Indeed, thinking back to the many guides, magazines, and anthologies I perused in my graphics days, I have difficulty recalling anything other than analyses of previously successful designs ever being offered as support of a design decision.


And so I turn to two of this week’s visual rhetoric authors (in a thoroughly verbal fashion), though I intend to cover more in tomorrow’s class. First continuing with Wysocki’s “On Visual Rhetoric,” I’ll expand on the reasons why teaching a solely verbal composition course has never sat well with me. On one hand, I recognize and endorse that FY comp instructors are the first – and too often only – instruction undergraduates will receive in how to write for college. I mean really write for college. Many students will leave the FYC classroom and go on to write more papers for other college instructors, and because those college instructors have no reason to think of writing as anything more than a means to an end, the instruction in writing never advances further. Here’s your term paper assignment, here is what I require it to display, and how you get there is up to you. What FYC instructors teach is how to interpret and negotiate the rhetoric of the college composition assignment. Most of those composition assignments will take the form of a verbal paper. Most, but not all.

On the other hand, Wysocki rightly argues the why of teaching a visual rhetoric: “To be responsible teachers, then, we need to help our students (as well as ourselves) learn how different choices in visual arrangement in all texts (on screen and off) encourage different kinds of meaning making—and encourage us to take up (overtly or no) various values. We need to learn how to analyze and create texts that do not ignore the visual if we are to be responsible and appropriately critical citizens” (4). Wysocki is speaking specifically about teaching writing with computers, but the lesson applies more broadly to the critical consumption we must teach composition students in (cliché time!) an increasingly visual world. It is a cliché, but is as occasionally the case, this cliché has root in truth. Wysocki wasn’t expressly considering the omnipresence of visual writing modes we interface with daily across multiple web-enabled platforms. Our students will continue to be flooded with visually constructed messages at an ever-higher rate. We must teach how to respond to that visual bombardment in their non-academic life, as well as teaching them how to fulfill the handful of visually-situated projects they may tackle as they complete their studies. In either situation, this rhetorical preparation is empowering.

That empowerment can be seen in Dr. Hocks’ 2003 College Composition and Communication article. The deconstruction of Christine Boese’s “Xenaverse” dissertation in Kairos highlights the multi-vectored navigation potential that a natively-visual composition possesses. While, as a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I never fell into the Xena scene, it was easy to overlay my own framework of choice: Star Trek. With that in mind, it was easy to see the broader appeal the Xena project had to the type of die-hard fan Boese’s dissertation assumed, and how appealing the described navigation options would be for a visitor to the webtext. A similar type of user-negotiated learning or text engagement appears also in the Spelman “Colorblind Casting in Shakespeare” project. As Hocks notes, the “hybridity” of the project allowed the creators to exist both as students learning from the contributions of site visitors, but also as “professional” composers of the visual and verbal components of an enriching discussion about a fascinating topic amongst other theatre students and theatre veterans.

The ability to move around these sites/webtexts at will to whatever subtopic interests the individual visitor, and to create a self-negotiated relationship with the content contained within, recalls the now commonplace experience of losing hours chain-clicking through Wikipedia articles. Much like Wysocki suggests, this isn’t a solely design-driven or visual experience. The blending of verbal rhetoric to explain and detail, and the visual to contextualize and situate, represents the best potential one can hope for in visually rhetorical project.


This week is a welcome capstone to the course, as I intend for my final project to be the production of usable visual rhetoric course materials for the first-year composition students I will teach in the future. Over the next few weeks, I will continue to update this space with the accumulating fruits of my efforts. As this week’s class presentation leads into the final project, I’ll post more on the pedagogy of visual rhetoric in the composition classroom. I’ll return to some of the other texts from this week that I couldn’t cover in this blog post as well as other voices as they find their way into my course pedagogy. 


Visual Rhetoric: Threads in a web

I ultimately agree that the web is a rhetorical place, as Burbules argues. Two decades after the information explosion of the mid 90s, we have undeniably realized the potential of the personalization of the internet, and in ways Burbules couldn’t possibly have anticipated.

The most obvious manifestation of this defining of web places is seen in the rise of the social network. To varying extents, these services have offered users the ability to curate precise, rhetorically-situated representations of the web as they see it, and of how the web sees them. Social networks were the natural 2000s outgrowth of 1990s message boards, interest groups, and newsgroups.

Where Burbules’ analysis falters now is in the rhetorical navigation of the internet. Again, we can’t really blame him for his inability to see the massive changes just around the corner, considering this 2002 publication was likely in the works through 2001, if not earlier.

Burbules speaks of the linearity of the web, of how users feel the pressure of where they currently are spatially in choosing where to go next, i.e., the webpage which I am currently displaying has a high potential for semantic manipulation on which page I will choose to visit next. It is argued that this becomes something of a rabbit hole effect, where the user clicks from a starting point, and each space visited becomes one of a rapidly growing series of “turns,” and enough of these turns leads the user to a cloudy understanding of their journey in hindsight. This view of the web as an unknowable warren assumes a user experience rooted in the technology, software, and web design of the late 1990s:

“First, these links are bi-directional — users can go from page A to page B and return from B to A — but this relation is not symmetrical. Users must usually perform extra work within the browser’s conventions to return from B to A, and (especially having seen A already) the movement from B to A does not have the same semantic effect as the movement from A to B” (Burbules).

This changed radically soon after publication, and as a result of numerous pressures. A significant change on the end-user side of this relationship came in a deceptively simple package: the browser tab.

While tabbed browsing was a possibility back into the 1990s, it existed primarily as modifications or software plug-ins that were geared to the power user more than the average end user.  Browser tabs were not legitimized in mainstream browsers until the mid 2000s. Mozilla Firefox offered the first substantial penetration of the feature, but Internet Explorer didn’t offer it until 2006. This codification of the feature, combined earlier with alternative browsers like Opera and Avant, and later with expansions of Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari (which had existed for several years, but remained a minimal impact until the dramatic market expansion of Apple hardware in the late 2000’s), gave rise to a new user dynamic: breadcrumbs.

By using browser tabs – a process as simple as single mouse click in most browser interfaces – it has become simple for a user to leave themselves a clear route back through the multiple turns of their journey. This isn’t simply a convenience. The rise of tabbed browsing encourages the user to travel farther out of familiar territory, and to go off-road, knowing their travel needn’t be linear. The semantic pressure Burbules ascribes to the web is dramatically lessened when a user no longer feels compelled to move directly forward from their options at hand, or directly backward to the last page they visited.

A final note of difference is found between this empowered user’s browsing flexibility, and the rise of personal expression of the social network. Content aggregator websites, the most notable of which being Reddit, are the perfect compliment to this empowered browsing environment. Reddit and other social networks offer users the ability to tightly control the links to interesting material they might care to see, such as interests in social issues, news, political affiliations, or entertainment media. The user can visit their personal collection of interest-focused “subreddits,” their collection of Tumbr feeds, or their chosen list of Twitter microbloggers, and jump off to any of the numerous links featured with a new browser tab. From each landing, the user can then jump off again, creating both a rich collection of alternative browsing routes to return to, but also the ability to return back to any single waypoint along the journey.

Burbules’ critique of the linearity of the web of 2000-2002 is perfectly valid, and perhaps then, the best analogy of browsing was a fixed, straight thread. These few but critical changes in a user’s navigation, as well as the content they navigate from and to, has brought us much closer to viewing our internet browsing as a literal web.

Visual Rhetoric: “It’s called ‘total situational awareness,’ Lana.”

So I’ve only just scratched the surface of the McCloud’s Understanding Comics by reading the provided chapter, but I’m already kinda hooked. My critical appreciation of the comic and animation art forms has always been a background interest that I’ve meant to expand on, but it’s never been a high priority. Just this little snippet on faces as icons has made something very clear for me: we don’t passively consume anything.

When we watch live action representations of abstract-to-us settings on television an in movies, we still have a host of kneejerk checklists we go through. We expect to see crash carts, medical beds, curtains, x-ray lightboxes, and high-countered nursing stations for a hospital setting to pass muster before we’re even willing to consider its characters and stories. This happens to varying degrees of complexity, depending on the setting depicted, but we simply do not accept only cursory attention to detail.

ArcherYet we have illustration and animation that continually challenges the boundary between realism and stylistic choice. I think first of Archer, the FX adult-themed cartoon about a womanizing, emotionally-stunted, manchild of a secret agent and his often inept intelligence agency, ISIS. From its beginning, Archer has pushed a visual aesthetic that relies heavily on detail, and especially in the characters’ faces, as much of its humor is derived from face-to-face acerbic, sardonic, and sarcastic wit. We need detailed and realistic representations of Archer faces because we want to see more refined difference in emotional state. We don’t want just happy; we want nervous relief, wryness, cockiness, and schadenfreude. We don’t want just sad; we want humiliation, disappointment, demonstrably feigned indifference, and vulnerability. We don’t want just anger; we want outrage, offense, seething hatred, and sublimated rage. Archer’s character interactions cover these nuances and all the shades of grey in between in every episode. Perhaps because the production team places so much emphasis on facial detail, that defines the series aesthetic of detailed surroundings, too.

Homer 2Turn now to The Simpsons. It would be unfair to say that our eponymous characters and their fellow Springfielders don’t also require this nuance in facial expression; Homer Simpson certainly has expressed all of the emotional states I just attributed to Archer (I’d certainly hope so in 25 seasons!), and his illustration has the necessary nuance to do so. The difference between Archer and The Simpsons is that the latter is is fundamentally not as emotive. The Simspons is a more physically-derived comedy (especially in the last half of its run), so while the characters are capable of being drawn for a similar range of emotional expression, it’s not as essential to their function in a scene. We need only to know the general state of their emotions. Thus, their faces are more simplistic and exaggerated representations as McCloud suggests, stripped down to the essentials to enable animators to amplify meaning in a way that realistic art can’t (30).

XKCD: Two Years
XKCD: Two Years

My final example is something of a counter to McCloud’s suggestion that basic faces are necessary, but also an affirmation to his belief that the reader will fill in whatever details are necessary if the illustration is an appropriate canvas to do so. XKCD, a founder of the webcomic genre, completely circumvents faces as a mode of expression. To my knowledge, the artist has never drawn a character with a face, relying instead on simple stick figures with one or two secondary identifying features, such as a hair style, a hat, an article of clothing, or a prop. Yet the blocking of the characters bodily, taken with the occasional inclusion of a setting or important item, has enabled the series to grapple with the gamut of emotion and happenings from madcap to sober. This is something of an apples-to-oranges comparison with two animated shows versus a static image comic, but I believe XKCD stands out as even more impressive as a result of this handicap.

McCloud’s suggestion that we are aware only of the fundamentals features of our own face as others might perceive them is interesting, and generally correct, but I think we are willing to see ourselves in even more generalizable patterns. The human brain is a fantastic pattern recognition system, and since we are so keenly aware of ourselves/others and our environments, we seek to sort everything into a pattern in order to make more sense of our inputs. I think the real take away is only that the messenger simply must not stand in the way of the message, as McCloud suggests, but defining where that line is crossed is the challenge.

Note: Back when we were trying to get back on track from the snow closures, I also wrote a post as an offshoot from the Barthes/Panzini ad assignment. You can see it here.

Visual Rhetoric: The Frustrating Frontier

Hansens_final_logBig shocking announcement: I’m a Star Trek nerd. I know, I know… I carried that secret so well for so many years, you can be excused for not knowing until I decided to let on just now.

All kinds of arguments can be made about why pre-teen me attached himself so firmly to Star Trek (specifically The Next Generation): maybe it was accessible morality plays and overlays of real world issues (like all good sci fi); perhaps I appreciated the role models of strong, thoughtful, responsible men when I  lacked a positive father figure; Trek certainly offered escapism from middle school unpopularity. All of those arguments would be valid, but for a child growing up on the cusp of the tech revolution, I also liked the shiny high-tech world the Enterprise crew inhabited. I of course liked high-profile devices like phasers, photon torpedoes, and tricorders, but also ranking highly amongst those devices was the PADD (personal access display device). I think it was easy and compelling to see the power of having access to a computer in the palm of your hand.

Move forward two decades and we have the realization of the PADD in the form of the iPad (that had to factor at least marginally in the naming choice, right?) and other tablet media devices. I’ll skip past the “magical” and “revolutionary” Apple product intro talking points – we can suffice with the fact that these are great, versatile devices that have opened up avenues of access and media saturation far broader than we could have imagined when they were non-functioning slabs of plastic on our television screens in 1990.

Yet these devices aren’t perfect. Perhaps we’re still in the phase of initial remediation Delagrange details in Chapter 2 of Technologies of Wonder, because I’m pretty sure that the Enterprise crew never had to deal with issues of media compatibility, non-supported file formats, and locked-in, low-functionality mobile versions of websites that were the only option for PADD access. We want our iPads to be universally functional stand-ins for books, full-OS desktops/laptops, and television, but we have to get by right now knowing that most things will work really well, but that we’ll also encounter the occasional website or service that just can’t translate to the tablet experience. It is then that we become acutely aware of the mode and its effect on the media we are trying to consume.

Delagrange notes the problems we may be experiencing right now as we realign our interactions and expectations of media:

With all media, but particularly with new media, the viewer experiences an oscillation between immediacy, the sense of immersion in or “liveness” of the medium, and hypermediacy, the ways in which the medium calls attention to its mediation . . . for most people, immediacy—a transparently “real” experience of a medium that erases the frame and appears to provide unmediated access to its content—is the over-arching desire of new media, and the desire of their users. (27)

And a bit later:

Hypermediacy, on the other hand, which calls attention to its mediation through the accumulative effect of stacking, layering, linking, juxtaposing, and other visual, verbal, and aural strategies, would seem to resist a unified perspective, offering a multiplicity of points of view on every screen … hypermediacy only reminds users of the immediacy they desire. If this is the unstated goal of remediation—a “new, improved” way to inhabit the same old unexamined Cartesian spaces and relations of knowledge and power—it is little wonder that conventional, conservative, transparent practices of “appropriate” academic discourse tend to reassert themselves in new media spaces. (27)

When the effect of this remediation kicks in fully, we’re reminded that we’ve not chosen the “real” thing. This reminder carries with it all the thoughts new media doesn’t want us to think – frustrations that content doesn’t “just work,” belief that the mode being used is amateurish or underdeveloped, or half-hearted plans to revisit the content in its optimized mode later – all of which risk translating into a negative reader judgment regarding the author(s) and their work.

Delagrange notes that this type of remediation struggle has occurred in preceding format expansions such as painting-to-photography, stage-to-film, radio-to-TV. I’m acutely aware that in these moments there were doomsayers that history looked badly upon once the shift was fully realized and it was clear the world had kept on spinning, so I won’t proclaim the sky is falling. I will note, however, that this shift is objectively different and may therefore produce different results. These medium shifts that precede were generally 1:1, content in one ubiquitous format moving to another eventually ubiquitous format. This shift from all of the above to new media is multi-channel. We have dozens of different options for consuming any single type of media, including the academy’s ongoing discussion. One app will work with a handful of streams, but not another handful of other sources. Content providers or device manufacturers, through business arrangements or self-promotion, choose to actively preclude certain providers’ streams altogether. On top of that, hardware in use is in varying degrees of compatibility. I can’t really use an iPad 1 anymore because Apple has stopped updating its OS and the apps I use to consume media streams are increasingly less compatible with the older, slower, less-capable iOS 5x. In a fundamental way, this fractured pressure to consume different streams, in different spaces, and on different devices will stand as a barrier to hypermedia unifying to monolithic, ubiquitous standard for quite some time, and perhaps indefinitely. This is a disincentive to publish in new media. We’re familiar with the channels we’ve been using for so long, and we can’t unify between one or even a small handful of channels, so the new media alternative is inherently more fragmented.

I’d like to think that in the unseen moments of Star Trek, we see Worf snarling and hurling his decrepit and barely functioning iPADD 35 across his quarters because the app he used to fill out his routine security briefings has crashed one too many times. His dark mood will continue into the turbolift to the bridge, where a smug Riker will sing the virtues of his iPADD 37S, and where Data will innocently (and therefore annoyingly to Worf) outline the virtues of the most recent build of Android OS.  Maybe that’s why Worf is always in such a dour state.

Visual Rhetoric: Before you can deconstruct

Several years back, when I was just beginning to start my graduate career, I had one of my favorite conversations ever with Scott Russell, the coordinator of the Marian E. Wright Writing Center. I had started tutoring there not too long before, and while I can’t remember for the life of me how we got there (one can rarely remember the beginning of conversations with Scott – usually you’re left staggering with yet another sobering readjustment of your understanding of The Way Things Are), I can recall this was when I realized the perfect storm that is academic momentum: in order to change academia, you have to prove yourself to academia, and in order to prove yourself to academia, you must play long enough by academia’s rules that when you have finally achieved enough power and privilege to critique the structure, you are less likely to do so because you’ll be tearing at the very foundation of your own authority. Thus begets and sustains the revolving door of firebrands being tempered into the same tools that maintain the system they set out to tackle. A few strays make it through with their convictions intact, but they are now too few to institute the radical sweeping change they once thought themselves on the cusp of. The cycle repeats.

I started my reading of Delagrange linearly with chapter 1, and was quickly reminded of this conversation above. While there is a handful of “non-traditional” publications that offer limited resistance, Delagrange’s point stands: “Unadorned text, written in plain style and organized in a way that can readily be outlined, has long been the paradigm for scholarly performances and it has been presumed to fit all ‘legitimate’ academic scholarship. Legitimacy, however, is a conservative, hereditary principle that protects the interests of those who claim it” (10). Sound familiar?

The reason we continue to see the visual mode of Text On A Page perpetuate – even to the point where most online only publications still release their editions formatted to look like a physically printed volume in order to appease the academy’s expectations as defined by The Way Things Are (something else Delagrange notes). The catch here is that I’m willing to bet there’s a lot more appetite for this change to take hold buried beneath the surface in everyone who’s playing by the rules, but we’re all waiting on each other to flinch first.

Anyone who makes it far into the academy realizes quickly that significant scholarly inquiry is defined not by the window dressing, but by the substance of the ideas and discussion created. It’s just a matter of time before the academy changes to stop the privileging of black ink on off-white paper, right? We’re all waiting for that change to take hold. While we wait for the winds to change, however, we’ll just submit our next publication to a traditional outlet. Just this time, so we can add it to our C.V. without having to be defensive. Next time we’ll try another more “unconventional” outlet.

I’m still at a point where I haven’t been published (except for a book review), but I can see that pressure at work on my future, and I can see how easily this publication cold war with the academy will stretch out. Thank you Scott – and damn you, Scott – for helping me achieve so pragmatic a POV so early. I’ll do what I can to help tear down the wall.

Just lemme get something published in a traditional journal first.

Visual Rhetoric: So you can

Barthes’ rhetorical analysis of image of a pasta advertisement naturally got me thinking about other advertisements. I have recently had the curse (on my sanity) and boon (for this application) of seeing a handful of the same commercials multiple times and in rapid succession. Because we’re cordcutters, my wife and I watch 99% of the TV we consume through streaming options like Netflix and Hulu Plus. As we are doing at the moment, we occasionally tear through a TV series in rapid fire (in this case, reminding ourselves of Community’s better seasons before the plummet of season 4).

If you’re familiar with Hulu Plus, then my plight is clear: I’ve had the joy of seeing a specific credit card commercial dozens of times in the past few weeks, and had already noticed some of Barthes’ visual critique.

Chase Sapphire Ad

Much of what Barthes notes in a pasta ad is relevant here. The BBQ restaurant Chef Nobu visits is awash in images that denote the immediacy of his experience: the restaurant is crowded, so we know he’s gone someplace popular; numerous large cuts of meat are roasting in converted steel oil drums, so we know it’s authentic; Nobu is invited back to see the grills with the chef, so we know he’s connected with people. It is implied that he is connecting with his peer, but an interesting image precedes this: Nobu’s hand laying down his Chase Sapphire card. The very next image is the chef’s invitation for Nobu to join him, so the message is clear: this credit card gets you access. This theme of access and enablement is referenced throughout the voiceover of the commercial, the narrator beginning many statements with “so you can.”  This implication of access is tied directly to the credit card, connoting that adventures await you when you wield this little piece of plastic.

We can also see textual signing in this ad. A literal sign is visible after Nobu has left the restaurant to stand outside with the jovial proprietor: never fully visible behind the other man in the restaurant’s window is a sign that can be assumed to read “sold out.” The textual denotation is literally that the restaurant has sold through its stores for the day. The textual connotation is, when joined with the image of Nobu laughing outside this door with the chef, that the credit card prevented him from missing out on something great. Finally, the credit card’s mantra of “so you can” closes the advertisement, and the narrative is complete. Use the Chase Sapphire card so you can go on adventures and get to see things you otherwise couldn’t.

As Barthes reminds us, these scenes are manufactured, not captured as they happen organically. The base premise, that an internationally renowned chef who owns a chain of exclusive restaurants needs this credit card to have this experience, is of course preposterous. He has the means, with or without this card. The imagery and textual cues brute force the discordant message into the viewer’s mind, glossing over reality. Taken for its rhetorical choices, you can admire the advertisement for somewhat subtly crafting its message.

If only the season 4 writers of Community had maintained a grasp on such subtlety, Chase would have a score or more chances to sell me on this amazing piece of exploration-enabling plastic.

Visual Rhetoric

I’ll continue to use the 8900 tag for my most recent class to feature use of my blog. Prior to January 2014, anything tagged 8900 will reference Computers and Writing class from Fall 2012. Going forward, expect content relevant to a Visual Rhetorics course.

Edit: Dr. Hocks has provided a much clearer way for me to to incorporate the Visual Rhetoric iteration of 8900, and I don’t know why I sought to make it harder on myself. Thus, all Visual Rhetoric posts will be prefixed … pause for dramatic effect … Visual Rhetoric.

Thanks, Dr. Hocks.

Instructor at University of Northern Colorado. Compositionist, rhetorician, husband, gamer, cat guy.