Ok, I’m already geeked about visual rhetoric because, among other things, one of the textbooks (Olson, p. xxii) contains a reference to one of my favorite anthropologists, Clifford Geertz and his “Centers, Kings, and Charisma” in Culture and Its Creators. Any text or person who quotes an anthropologist is on the right track, as far as I’m concerned, because social scientists like Geertz were and are all about thick description. Thick description, a term coined by Geertz, is exactly what Longinus was talking about in ancient Greece when he said to his pupils, “Weight, grandeur, and energy in writing are very largely produced…by the use of images…you seem to see what you describe and bring it vividly before the eyes of your audience.” By describing cultural scenes in great detail, Geertz and other anthropologists hoped to gain a better understanding of the culture they were studying and to share that understanding with readers. The visual, of course, is a huge part of that (although not the only part).
The title of this post comes from the forward of the Olson textbook, in which Bruce Gronbeck writes that delivery (actio) was one of the canons of classical rhetoric. “Delivery” being the visual: speaking or acting out a scene. So… rhetoric has always had a visual component. We’re not breaking new ground here, but we have new technologies. Gronbeck wrote, “Cicero circulated speeches that he never delivered just to empower his ideas, much like a blogger today distributes diatribes and calls-to-action.” Not all blogging is about diatribes and calls to action, but I agree with Gronberg that Cicero probably would have been a blogger. (Like my friends outside of class who are reading this. Maybe.)
The editors of Visual Rhetoric: A reader in communication and American culture spend a great deal of time in the preface and introduction trying to convince us that the visual is central to communication, to culture, to pretty much everything. The visual certainly is ubiquitous – television, signs, posters, billboards, web pages, displays of all kinds. It is an important way that we communicate and transmit culture, but it is not the only way. Just as music professors argue that music is fundamental to culture, and history professors argue that history is the foundation of culture so too, it seems, do visual rhetoricians believe that “visual rhetoric affects the whole range of our activities in public life.” Clearly (no pun intended) the visual is a large part of the way we communicate, inform, and persuade, but I’m leery of the tunnel vision we can have after spending a lot of time studying one particular branch of knowledge or other.
So, I’m curious, what ways do you think visual rhetoric, or visual messages, transmit culture?