“Cicero Would Have Been a Blogger”

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? 



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4 responses to ““Cicero Would Have Been a Blogger””

  1. Kenneth M. Kambara (@Prof_K) says :

    Ah, you would find Marty Jay’s Downcast Eyes to be an interesting read, as he discusses ocularcentrism. I’ve been fascinated with visual culture since the mid-1990s. Specifically, probably around 1995 when I started to take film theory/critical history courses. The image is interesting as it permeates media & can rapidly/readily transmit & reproduce culture. The meme and the moving GIF become ultradense media, laden with meanings or possibilities of meanings, so readily shareable. So, while postmodernists talk of the anarchy of the sign & floating signifiers, there are limits—as Barthes says there are cultural logics that limit the boundlessness of meanings. The visual can construct a readymade narrative or fit into existing themes/tropes that make us go…”A-ha, I get that!” Although, I do get that this might be an artifact of a historical privileging of the visual, as opposed to some information processing “economy” of the sign with visual media.

    I tend to unpack visual culture by going back to Roger Chartier’s The Order of Books, where he says to understand the book, you need to understand the text, the materiality of communication (book), & the act of reading. Applying this rubric to the visual gives a more nuanced understanding of how it is manifested in culture. I think it can explain things of how (say) a film (as text or rhetoric) can be experienced very differently depending on its materiality & how it is being viewed (context), with differential effects on culture. So, Gilligan’s Island becomes much more popular in syndication in the afternoon in the 1970s & on than it ever was as a prime-time sitcom.

    I think why I’m drawn to the visual & why I think it’s important with respect to culture is that it can be post-literate. Visual rhetoric often (not always) requires an understanding of culture/microculture/pop culture and can “transcend” literacy & language. So, the action film that delivers its payoff does so with a specific visual rhetoric of storytelling that doesn’t really matter if it’s dubbed into Mandarin, Hindi, or Russian. I would imagine the same holds true for physical comedy. I think this example is more in tune with globalization & the transnational flows of images. I think the visual can also be highly particularistic with respect to culture, as well. The use of imagery that requires cultural knowledge to understand it, but not necessarily strong language ability.

    Sounds like an interesting class. Blog away!

  2. jamesericsentell says :

    This is a very insightful post about the relationships among classical rhetoric, classical rhetors, and contemporary visual rhetoric scholarship. You’re right about each discipline seeing their values as ubiquitous and transcendent. But I have to say, if anything permeates our world today, it’s the visual!

  3. filixfemina says :

    This is one of those topics that makes me dizzy…so many aspects and examples that make this as warped as good poetry. (It will likely contribute to verbosity because I simply can’t draw, here.) I’m in agreement with Ken’s ideas in simialr ways, and in from different perspectives, too.

    Music and history serve cultural functions related to binding and branding tribal attributes. In contrast, I think that visual rhetoric is more influential in gluing cultural ideals to our plates. For instance, the ad with the Hulk bearing a white moutache no longer needs the words, “GOT MILK.” to identify its product, nor do we need to say that its good for heavily muscled green men – its target audience will turn their heads, hands down.

    Visuals present an innate and sometimes insidious power that influence conscious and subconscious decision-making and choices. Some of this can be tracked cross-culturally and through many centuries, even from ancient times to the present, e.g., the caduceus. As Ken mentions its post-literate impact, we’ve come full circle, perhaps from its impact on pre-literate society as well as during the lifespan of an individual (visual-verbal-visual), and also as Leonard Sclain * expresses the creative/academe cycles of value in “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image.”

    With star dome planetarium fired up, we’re presented the backdrop, tapestry, banner, billboard on which visual rhetoric has been stored (in the absence of modern technology) since the dawn of man. Its symbols appear as seasonal markers on cave drawing billboards – the stories of the hunt- and the visuals superimposed on the constellations above ever remind of the history, music, tales, and power behind them. Culturally instilled visual rhetoric reaches small children and the elderly, uneducated through post-grad students, and I count on it as the common connection and I’ve not been disappointed, yet. The learning of the sky through the visual is reinforced with storytelling, but people return for the storytelling; they don’t seem to forget where the constellations are even with the overlays of mythology removed, and not even when they go to the ‘real’ sky. That visual recall is durable.

    And one of the oldest examples of visual rhetoric as cultural influence at an extreme, is the use of astrology and astronomical predictions based on assigned caricature of the sky.While the stories of the sky certainly taught entire populations when to plant, when to harvest, sketchy histories of terraform changes, or even traditional cultural values, the imagery cemented the cultural ideal. It also cemented power and control to those who could manilupate those images- rule the visual arena, rule the people. The removal, by Ptolemy, of Ophiuchus as a zodiacal constellation was probably not a whim, but of political nature – perhaps even to remove the only non-Greek figure from the tapestry, the African Egytpian Imhotep.

    As an entire image presented is captured – a snapshot – quickly and with very little to no sorting of the information literacy is not necesary for retrieval. Film or theatre with visual and auditory/verbal messaging combined, it’s still the image rather than the soundtrack that remains most intact. We actually remember very little of what we hear compared to what we see without express novelty and rhythm (lyrics, poesy). Otherwise what we hear, the auditory input, is often sorted by our own system of priorities, which is why note-taking can be so important for some people.

    I first learned about visual rhetoric in the 1970’s from my English teacher Gus Franza (**now Dr. August Franza) whose very mission in life seemed to be teaching and experiementing with balance of word to visuals, poetry to pictorial/artistic symbolism, and script to setting. Of note, though, was his attention to the effects of mass media on our sensibilities. It was quite compelling- placement of menu items, where colors landed on album covers, if Andy Warhol’s soup cans would raise the social status of a can of soup in this county or that, and why what shade of lipstick a woman wore and in which quadrant of an ad page her mouth appeared could nudge our subconscious enough to influence a lifestyle or purchase, or our judgment of one. He had us analyze album covers, create our own, and menus as we recorded food choices based on font or graphic color, and placement on the menu.

    Years later I met anthropologist and activist Kathy Dettwyler. During the time I knew Dr. Dettwyler, she was compiling presentations on how pharmaceuticals were influencing the respectability of one type of infant feeding over another, and I was doing media watch for a maternal-infant health agency. Even after government impositions that limited how they advertised their alternative product, without a word they portrayed only upper class symbols, properly designed into most effective page locations, into their ads- smart or well-off women do because they do know better (oh, of course they do) than the struggling women on WIC (the US Government footing the bill for the costly differences.) Worse than that, though, it influenced cultural stratification, and not for the better, essentially blaming the poor for their povery and ill for their ilnesses. BUT – we can help you, now.

    That simply goes beyond needing to understand the visual element in order to be holistically engaged in the message.

    (Sorry – my usual .16 turned into 1.98 and i don’t even like to write.)



  4. merrymeant says :

    I’m so glad you guys commented!

    Ken and Lorri, thanks for your insights. I knew you guys would have some good stuff to share! I hope I can come back later and talk more. Working 8-5 and having two nights every week of class from 6-9 is kind of freaking me out. I will look for that book, Ken, thanks! And thanks for the links, Lorri. I love you guys!

    Eric, thanks. And you are right, the visual does permeate everything. Sometimes I have to take off my glasses and turn down the lights just to slow down the deluge of stimuli. At what point is there so much to see that we no longer see much of anything?

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