“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”
– John Berger, Ways of Seeing
The power of visual rhetoric is monumental. An image can often have a greater impact on an audience than a written text. Visual images, like written texts, are rhetorical. That is, they possess both a way of representing and carrying representational content. As we are increasingly surrounded by images, it is important for us to critically analyze both their rhetoric and content. My concern in these notes is to suggest a way of teaching visual rhetoric with first-year composition students. Let me begin with a gloss of the problem that our students confront.
I want to argue that they live in an essentially deceptive and manipulative culture: advertisers and politicians and every message sender with an agenda assume that our students process images less carefully and more reflexively than written texts, that they scrutinize them less critically because they can’t penetrate their surfaces. Ironically, this army of communicators counts on inundation and numbness to do the work of rendering their signs and symbols powerful. They’re there on the screen, and then they’re gone. No freshman at an American university can think about one image and its contents before it is replaced by a dozen more. Propagandists of all stripes know this and craft their images to appeal to the comfort of young humans’ short attention spans.
Consider the world into which our students awaken: There’s the TV, the Web, smart phones, messaging, Tweeting, Facebooking, WhatsApping, e-mailing, and all the rest of it. Most of the images in this media cloud make an explicit or implicit argument. They want us to believe in, do, or respond to something; they want us to vote for someone, watch a show, drive a specific car, dress in a designer’s clothes, drink an amazing craft beer, eat some joint’s outrageous burgers, and, generally speaking, just buy something as soon as possible.
One of my goals in working with students on visual rhetoric is to help them see that they are forced into an intellectually defensive position just by living in this culture, unless they regard blatant manipulation as an acceptable way to be in the world, and I reject that proposition. So, what is to be done in the composition classroom where both teachers and students are puzzling over how to proceed? Just this: we as compositionists have an obligation to ourselves, our students, and the integrity of our role in the culture to analyze, evaluate, and critique the images that inundate us. The question becomes how. Continue reading Visual Rhetoric, Visual Argument: Reading Images Responsibly by Rita S. Nezami