Hawhee & Messaris, “What’s Visual about ‘Visual Rhetoric'”

Hawhee, Debra, and Paul Messaris. “What’s Visual about ‘Visual Rhetoric’?” Quarterly Journal of Speech 95.2 (May 2009): 210-223. (14 pages)

Messaris (Hawhee, editor) offers a review of four books (including 2 edited collections) on visual rhetoric. The goal of his review is—as his title suggests—look at what makes visual rhetoric different, special, from verbal rhetoric: as he writes, each of these texts offer an analysis of the visual aspects of argumentation and persuasion as a way to see how the visual is just as productive than words; however, don’t quite outline what makes images special, unique. In other words, what do images offer in argumentation, persuasion, and rhetoric that words does not. He organizes his review in three questions:

            Do visual arguments need captions? Here, Messaris confronts the binary features often proposed between language and images: that language is propositional, images are presentational; language has syntax for making claims about reality; images have no such syntax and are merely inflected representations” (212). He disrupts this argument in two ways: first, he points out that we must not treat visual communication as if “its properties were determined by some inherent, unchanging essence, instead of the ever-mutating conventions of the users of visual media” (213). In other words, it’s not quite accurate to essentialize the affordances of visual because they can be design, implemented, etc in any number uses and contexts. Second, “far from being a limitation, the lack of an explicit propositional syntax may actually be one of the distinguishing strengths of images when they are used as a means of persuasion” (213). In other words, one of the many uses of images is its potential beyond propositional syntax.

Between these arguments, he points out that “images also perform an entirely different function that has no counterpart on the verbal side of the divide” (213). He points to the “perception of a narrative connection” and “propositional sequences of images” (214). Again, images can be both propositional like verbal language, but an also go beyond it.

Are pictures more emotional than words? While initially conceding that we must attend to how the pictures/words/images are being used (some images may be more emotional, not other times), he does claim that images do provide a special kind of means of consubstantiation. For example, images have often been employed to create common ground between speaker and audience: “pictorial perspective was considered a means of creating the illusion of a literal common ground—a space that the viewer might enter” (217). In modern use of images, “the immediate goal of perspective was to involve, not to disembody. In present-day visual media, illusionistic devices such as 3D or ‘invisible editing’ create the common ground on which emotion can build and persuasion can take hold” (217).

Are Words more informative than pictures? Here, Messaris offers the distinction between isomorphic images and non-isomorphic images: isomorphic images: “pictures whose contents we can recognize on the basis of our everyday perceptual habits”; non-isomorphic images: “requires familiarity with a specific code” (218). Further, he considers the idea of photographs as proof: he points to the Emitt Till images, two reasons contributing to its function as ‘proof’: 1. It allowed viewers to become witness to what, for many, had been somewhat rumor or legend; 2. The forum of which it was published was trusted by the black community.


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