Hill & Helmers, Defining Visual Rhetoric

Hill, Charles A., and Marguerite Helmers. Defining Visual Rhetorics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence, Erlbaum, 2004. (342 pages)

Helmers and Hill open their introduction with a question: “How do images act rhetorically upon viewers?” However, they note that addressing this question has not been undertaken with any serious inquiry, in part because our discipline has valued verbal communication over visual (and thus splitting the verbal from the multimodal). In doing so, the authors write that “there is no vocabulary for discussing images, or perhaps we might say that there are so many disciplinary specific vocabularies that we in English have to borrow extensively” (2). They focus their attention on developing a systematic approach in the study of visual rhetoric, one that would require a theoretical basis and terminology.

They begin to note that the ubiquity of images and their influence on our lives. For example, all verbal communication is, in fact, multimodal. They also see visuals as a key component of national identity and imagined, networked communities: “infotainment telesector—the connection of technologies, news, and entertainment–…is something like a universal country without borders…Strong national symbols such as the eagle and the flag are liberally in use in the popular and mass media as a means of gathering together the imagined national community…National symbols are employed as a visual shorthand to represent shared ideals and to launch an immediate appeal to the audience’s sense of a national community” (4). In this way, images often operate to bring people together, to represent the ideas of a community.

This process works because images, visuals, or photographs often reference other images: “one of the ways that images may communicate to us is through intertextuality, the recognition and referencing of images from one scene to another. The reader is active in this process of constructing a reference. If the reader is unaware of the precursors, the image will have a different meaning, or no meaning at all” (5). However, as the authors write, images or any icon only becomes meaningful through framing these images within repeated re-circulation and storytelling. As they write, historical context (in the sense of Richards) is necessary to create meaning.

However, images also construct its arguments through absence and presence (in the sense of Perelman). For example, the absence of women in rescue photographs in 9/11 becomes a powerful persuasive device that argues that women somehow did not exist at Ground Zero. The circulation and iconic-ness of these images has a profound influence on collective memories, having the power to distort memories. In other words, photographs do not reveal truth; rather a slice of reality, given meaning through context.

The authors offer three schools of thought that indicate a way forward to study visual rhetoric:

  1. Intertextuality

Intertextuality appears to include a set of terms that refer, in some way, to the connection between different kinds of texts. For example, transtextuality refers to “all that sets the text in a relationship, whether obvious or concealred with other texts” (14). Such a definition calls upon the concept of palimpsest: “that which is hidden behind the writing rather than directly articulated within it” (14).

  1. Pierce on Semiotics

Charles Sanders Pierce offers a triadic theory of icon, index, and symbol to discuss visuals (or semiotics). Icons are images that—either abstract or representational—“posses a character that makes it significant” (15). Icons are described as “images.” Index are images that “olds an existential relationship to its Object and often raises in the viewer a memory of a similar object” or a trace (16). Indexes are referred to as “diagram.” Symbolic images are those that represent the Object, but is not contigent on resemblance. Symbol is referred to as “metaphor”(16).

III. Barthes On Signs

In Barthes’ discussion of visual signs, he looks particulary at how visuals construct reality by framing meaning: “Reality is always framed by codes that determine what the writer or painter looks at—what they believe is worthy of vision and representation—and what mode of representation they select to describe that reality” (17). The frame of photography, for example, creates a boundary that makes a selection of reality “that acquires greater intensity than the flow of experience before and after it” (see: Burke’s terministic screen & Perelman’s presence) (17). The authors summarize succinctly: “rather than depict reality accurately, or event impressionistically, the creator assembles and arranges ‘blocks of meaning’ so that the description becomes yet another meaning. Rather than reveal truth or provide understanding, the poem or the image offers yet another meaning. The import of barthes’ insights for the study of visual rhetoric is that the assemblage of these ‘blocks of meaning’ is a rhetorical act” (17).

The authors conclude their introduction by discussing the importance of developing a common terminology “with fairly settled definitions of the terms that the discipline recognizes as important for doing its work” (19). However, they note, “disciplinary conventions also filter and constrain, and the disciplines are defined by their boundaries—as much by what topics, questions, and practices are not accepted as part of the disciplinary discourse as by those that are” (19).

The Psychology of Rhetorical Images, Charles A. Hill

Hill asks the question, “how, exactly, do images persuade? …How do representational images work to influence the beliefs, attitudes, opiions—and sometimes actions—of those who view them?” (25).

Hill specifically uses Perelman’s concept of presence as particular relevant for a study of visual rhetoric, namely, because “a good rhetor will attempt to prompt audience members to focus their attention on the specific elements that the rhetor thinks will most benefit his or her case” (28). He goes on to write, “the challenge for a rhetor defending any particular position or forwarding any particular proposal is to make the elements in the situation that are supportive of that position or proposal stand out for the audience members, to make these elements more salient and memorable…by the very fact of selecting certain elements and presenting them to the audience, their importance and pertinence to the discussion are implied. Indeed such a choice endows these elements with presence” (28). A good rhetor, then, will use images to draw relevant objects or elements to the forefront of the audience’s consciousness.

The logical end of this argument also seems to demonstrate how physical presence is the most effective way to increase an object’s presence. In this light, Hill argues that the more vivid the information, the more emotionally interesting and concrete: he delineates a range of most to least vivid kinds of information where visuals (like moving images with sound, static photographs, realistic painting, and line drawings) are considered more vivid types of information (or closer to actual experience). As Hill argues, visuals act as a cognitive heuristics to understand arguments and accordingly decision making.

Images also have a rhetorical power rooted in emotions: defined, emotions are “a cognitive recognition of and response to physiological reaction to some external stimulus” (33). “When we are exposed to visual information, our body reacts much as it would if the danger represented in the image were actually present…Although the primal emotions may be a result of an evolutionary response to personal danger, the specific stimuli that trigger these emotions can be personally and culturally conditioned” (34). “cultural values are continually exploited in persuasive discourse for the emotional weight they contain. In many persuasive appeals that use images, the images elicit emotions largely because these images instantiate one of these values, and evoking one of these cultural constructs causes the emotions that are linked to be instantiated” (35). “Once the association between a particular image and a value is created and internalized, the image becomes a symbol for the abstract value and can be used to trigger its associated emotions. This helps explain the immense amount of emotional attachment that many Americans have with the American flag, an attachment that has even led to attempts to make desecration of the flag a federal crime” (35). “Continually displaying visual associations between the product and some object or symbol that is already schematically tied to a positive value (thereby taking advantage of the emotional response that are already associated with the value” (36). (see affect transfer).

The Rhetoric of Visual Arguments, J. Anthony Blair

Blair questions succinctly, “What does being visual add to arguments?” He begins within an Aristotelian model of argument and points specifically to enthymeme because it takes it concept from the ambiguity of argumentation. Such ambiguity prompts greater participation with audience because the audience must supply meaning: “an Aristotelian enthymeme is an argument in which the arguer deliberately leaves unstated a premise that is essential t its reasoning. Doing so has the effect of drawing the audience to participate in its own persuasion by filling in that unexpressed premise” (41). The use of enthymeme allows us to see images as a source of great ambiguity, one where audience must extrapolate the premises of the argument.

But Blair goes further to distinguish between mere persuasion and argument. Persuasion, broadly defined, refers to “a cause of changes in belief,” but he goes further to note that people can experience a change in belief while not being persuaded (i.e. a brain surgeon or rapist can change one’s beliefs and mental state). Persuasion necessarily involves a behavior or belief change that “the person persuaded assents to the pressure of the vector of influence” (43). In other words, there is a possibility of resistance inherent in persuasion. However, going further, not all persuasion involves arguments. As he writes, sexual arousal can be persuasive, but not involve arguments. Thus, “arguments supply us with reasons for accepting a point of view” (44).

Blair then turns his attention to visual arguments, i.e. without necessarily words. But he warns that a definition of visual argument may be opening up or extending the definition of argument (generally) in directions that may diminish the general term’s purchase: “unless we can make a connection to the traditional concept, it would be best not to stretch the term argument to that extent. If there is no real connection, let’s just use a new term, and leave argument to the domain of the verbal” (45).

However, while he offers that as a preface, he does dispel two central hesitations in opening the concept of argument to visual argumentation. Namely, he points to two reasons for excluding visual from arguments by taking a closer examination of verbal argumentation. Frist, he notes that verbal argumentation can similarly be vague as is often noted by visuals. And likewise, not all arguments (including verbal) need to be propositional (a statement that can be either true or false; e.g. a proposition’s truthfulness or falsehood is not as important as its impact).

What, then, is visual argument? And how is it distinct from other forms of visual persuasion? Blair writes, “to be an argument, what is communicated by one party to another other others, whatever the medium of communication might be, must constitute some factor that can be considered a reason for accepting or believing some proposition, for taking some other attitude or for performing some action” (49). In other words, can visual arguments proffer reasons? Blair writes: certainly, much like LBJ’s Goldwater commercial, verbal reasons can be used to trace or extrapolate what the argument is and what change it hopes to incur. Yet, “a number of equally plausible alternate verbal renditions of the argument are available” (50). To distinguish between visual argument and other forms of visual persuasion, Blair writes that visual argument enunciates reasons given to support a clam, whereas in the latter no such element is present (51).

Why, then, would someone use visual arguments (over verbal)—what difference does it make? A few reasons:

  • Evocative power: “Visual images can thus be used to convey a narrative in a short time” (51).
  • Realism: “my students are under the impression that the visual gives them direct access to what is visually portrayed in a way that print does not, and their impressions are what matters so far as the power of visual is concerned” (51).
  • Force & Immediacy: “the power of the visual imagery to evoke involuntary reactions—reactions that must be consciously countered by the recipient if their power is to be at all defused” (54). “the symbols do their work preciously by making contact with our unconsciously held, symbol-interpreting apparatus, not by engaging our capacity to assess reasons and their implications” (58).


Framing the Study of Visual Rhetoric: Toward a Transformation of Rhetorical Theory, Sonja K. Foss

Foss offers, what she calls, a frame that may “order (but not necessarily confine) the study of visual rhetoric” (304). The frame’s scope is defined around the contents of Hill and Helmer’s book. The purpose of defining a frame is meant to systematize a field of visual rhetoric which, as she writes, is important in order to support a more fully formed, comprehensive understanding of discourse, one that expands beyond the almost exclusive attention to verbal discourse from which rhetorical theory has defined itself. The frame she offers is configured within three major pillars: definitions of visual rhetoric, areas of focus in the study of visual rhetoric, and approaches to the rhetorical study of visual artifacts.

Definitions of Visual Rhetoric: as Foss writes, the authors within the book have discussed visual rhetoric in two senses: visual rhetoric as a communicative artifact and visual rhetoric as a perspective. As a communicative artifact, it “is the purposive production or arrangement of colors, forms, and other elements to communicate to an audience” (304). Visual rhetoric as artifact is characterized by its addresivity or communicative arrangement for an audience. Further, as an artifact, we also can highlight the material aspects of the visual, one that blurs the binary between word and image. Visual rhetoric as a perspective “constitutes a theoretical perspective that involves the analysis of the symbolic or communicative aspects of visual artifacts” (306). As such, visual rhetoric is a mode of inquiry, involving ways of seeing, viewing, and knowing through the conceptual lens of visual symbols.

Area of Focus: Foss points to three areas of focus that visual rhetorical scholars tend to work from: nature refers to the “explication of the distinguishing features of the visual artifact itself” (307). Function refers to how a visual serves an audience–in this case, there is less emphasis on composes intention namely because there is an emphasis on how visuals can be recontextualized and thus constitute different meanings depending on the context. In this way, the intention of a piece cannot account for these lines of circulation. Evaluation refers to the use of criteria to determine whether a text accomplishes its apparent function. Evaluation brings together the other two areas of focus. It also is a way to challenge hardwired understandings of traditional notions of effectiveness: the common criteria of audience change and rationality do not quite hold up for visual texts.

Approaches: Finally, Foss looks to two approaches employed when studying visual artifacts. First, she mentions using rhetorical theory deductivcely to analyze visual artifacts. In such an approach, the goal is often to affirm the discursive features of rhetorical theories that draw their assumptions and characteristics from verbal discourses. Foss notes that inductive approaches, by beginning with the visual artifacts and building rhetorical theory on the basis of those characteristics, may be better suited to expand rhetorical theory beyond the boundaries of verbal discourse.


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