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Visual Rhetoric

Summary and Keywords

The growing field of visual rhetoric explores the communicative and persuasive power of the visual artifacts that surround us. This relatively new branch of rhetoric emerged in the late 20th century, disrupting a discipline that was traditionally concerned with the spoken and written word.

The artifacts studied through the lens of visual rhetoric comprise visual images and objects that are human created and culturally meaningful. They include two-dimensional images, such as political cartoons and video advertising, and three-dimensional objects such as museums and murals. Visual rhetoric can also include the analysis of embodied performance and thus examine the body as argument.

Although much of the scholarship focuses on the power of images in shaping people’s understanding of the world, there is also a recognition of the power of looking. Meaning does not reside in the images around us; we participate in its construction. To better understand visual rhetoric, it is important to review its emergence as an area of study, its definitions, and some of the recurring themes in the scholarship.

Keywords: visual rhetoric, visual arguments, visual public sphere, persuasion, hybrid literacy, visuality of the text

The growing field of visual rhetoric explores the persuasive power of the visual artifacts that surround us. This relatively new branch of rhetoric emerged in the late 20th century, disrupting a discipline that was traditionally concerned with the spoken and written word. Currently, rhetoricians recognize the need to understand an increasingly “ocularcentric, or eye centered” culture (Gronbeck, 2008, pp. xxi–xxiv) and pinpoint that “visual images provide access to a range of human experience not always available through the study of [verbal] discourse” (Foss, 2005, p. 143). More importantly, visual rhetoric has often been embraced by marginalized groups who turn to images and visual practices to challenge existing power structures (Olson, Finnegan, & Hope, 2008). Thus, studies of visual rhetoric engage with the visual in an attempt to understand how images and other artifacts work rhetorically. Although the study of visual rhetoric and visual culture has been undertaken by multiple disciplines in the arts and the humanities, this article focuses on understanding visual rhetoric within rhetorical studies, where Kenneth Burke (1966) opened the door for the analysis of human symbolic systems that went beyond speech and written language. This article explores definitions of visual rhetoric and discusses two recurring themes in the scholarship: the tensions between words and images, and between rationality and emotions. The article also addresses one of the most prolific areas of research within the field: visual arguments.

Definitions of Visual Rhetoric

There is no consensus on the definition of visual rhetoric. The term is used by scholars in different ways. For example, it can refer “to a large body of visual and material practices, from architecture to cartography and from interior design to public memorials” (Lucaites & Hariman, 2001, p. 37) or to “all communicative forms and media apprehended primarily through vision” (Olson et al., 2008, p. 3). The use of the term varies in scope, and its boundaries continue to be expanded by scholars across disciplines.

Sonja Foss (2005) proposes two broad meanings of visual rhetoric that provide a good starting point: visual rhetoric as a communicative artifact and visual rhetoric as a perspective (pp. 143–145). The first meaning corresponds to the definition of visual artifacts themselves. These artifacts “must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience” (p. 144). Examples of visual artifacts include two-dimensional texts such as political cartoons and television commercials, and three-dimensional ones such as museums, murals, and supermarkets. In all of these cases the rhetor uses symbols in order to communicate an idea. In political cartoons, for instance, a common trope is that of a monster. Drawing politicians as vampires or zombies attempts to reveal the corrupt character of the person depicted. In this example, the rhetor is consciously choosing symbolic images (e.g., fangs, red eyes, decaying bodies) to communicate an opinion about a politician, to persuade a potential audience.

The definition of visual artifacts can also be extended to those images that are the result of embodied performance. A public kiss can be visual rhetoric in this sense. Depending on the culture and the context, two lips pressed together can symbolize love or sexual attraction, among other things. What is communicated by a kiss also depends on who is doing the kissing. Public kisses between same-sex couples can become an act of activism against homophobia and can be analyzed as visual rhetoric (Morris & Sloop, 2006). In this case kissing is symbolic action, and those who kiss to protest are making a conscious rhetorical decision to communicate certain ideas to an audience. In sum, still images, moving images, spaces, and performances are all visual rhetoric if they (1) are symbolic, (2) are consciously used to communicate, and thus (3) have an audience in mind.

The second definition identified by Foss highlights “the communicative dimensions of images” (p. 145). In this sense, studies of visual rhetoric address questions such as: Can images argue? And, how do images or spaces persuade audiences? These and other questions seek to theorize how images and other visual objects work rhetorically. The discussion about the rhetorical power of a photograph, for instance, would fall under this definition of visual rhetoric. Scholars argue that photographs are persuasive because they hide their own rhetorical power. With photography it seems easy to assume that as spectators we are seeing an objective snap of reality and to forget that the image is a framed representation of the world, created by the photographer.

As an example, Dana Cloud (2004) analyzes the rhetoric of the “clash of civilizations” in a series of photographs about the War on Terror compiled by Cloud argues that the images create a narrative that reinforces U.S. imperialism by presenting visual binary oppositions that show the United States as organized, modern, and white versus Afghanistan and Iraq as chaotic, premodern, and dark. Images of women in burkas and veils are particularly powerful in a narrative that visually depicts them leaving the shadows to enter the light as they embrace the possibility of modernity brought on by U.S. intervention. This scholarship extends the concepts of the verbal and visual ideographs by showing how an abstract idea such as “the clash of civilizations” can become concrete through a series of photographs.

Foss’s focus on the function of the image has been challenged by rhetorical critics who argue for alternative ways of interpreting visual rhetoric. For instance, Valerie Peterson (2001) suggests that starting an analysis with the image—instead of its elements—forces the critic to bypass perception and start directly with interpretation. Consequently, “the process of seeing” remains unexamined (p. 22). For Peterson, Foss’s schema leads to several problems. The first one is circularity, where the analysis becomes a “self-fulfilling critical prophecy” (p. 22). In other words, the critics “find what they expect to find and see what they can’t help but see” (p. 22). Another problem identified by Peterson is the separation between function and aesthetics. Such separation ignores the notion that beauty plays a large role in persuasion. Finally, Peterson suggests that Foss’s schema is useful for Modernists’ analyses, which presume that creators have identifiable intentions and that there is a clear separation between form and function, between art and everyday life, etc. As a result, Peterson proposes a new schema for the analysis of visual rhetoric, one that, she argues, is more appropriate for “postmodern sensibilities” (p. 26).

The proposed schema works inductively, where the critic would first focus on “sensory visual stimuli” by examining the use of light, line, color, perspective, shading, volume, etc. (p. 23). Interpretation would thus take place after a close examination of perception. Additionally, Peterson encourages rhetorical critics to use existing language and theories from fine and graphic arts. According to Peterson, her approach makes the process of criticism more transparent, creative, and “helps critics avoid the trap of ideological determinism” (p. 25).

In response to both Foss and Peterson, Jonah Rice (2004) proposes a third approach that specifically “focuses on postmodern visual culture” (p. 64). Rice also argues for an inductive approach that “decenters the critic,” but suggests that Peterson’s proposal does not go far enough and therefore fails to offer a true alternative to Foss’s schema (p. 65). Consequently, Rice delineates what he calls “the ommiphistic visual schema” (p. 66). According to this schema, postmodern visual texts have four indicators: They (1) contain oppositional elements, (2) are coconstructed by the audience, (3) must be interpreted within context, and (4) contain ideological elements. Additionally, Rice proposes that critics approach texts “as something that has content, form, and a culminating fusion of visual experience” (p. 73). Critics can thus interpret visual texts by analyzing the intersection of indicators and elements in different ways. For instance, they can examine content, form, and fusion in terms of oppositional, coconstructed, contextual, and ideological elements, or they can analyze oppositional elements in terms of form, content, fusion, etc. Following the unstructured nature of postmodernism, Rice’s approach rejects a proper method in the interpretation of visual rhetoric.

While many studies of visual rhetoric focus on the power of the visual in shaping people’s understanding of the world, there is also a recognition of the power of those who look, and how “they co-create meaning along with the artifacts themselves” (Olson et al., 2008, p. 3). For Marguerite Helmers (2004), visual rhetoric is “a frame of analysis for looking and interpreting” (p. 65). The construction of meaning occurs as a result of the interaction between the artifact, the person who looks, and the space where this situation takes place. Thus, meaning is not completely situated in the visual artifact—the intentions of the rhetor play only a part in this process. The spectator does not “just look,” and looking “is never innocent nor is it ever final” (p. 65). We look from a specific position, within a specific culture, and with certain life experiences.

In his work on film rhetoric, David Blakesley (2004) unpacks the masterful ways in which Alfred Hitchcock forces his viewers to identify with his characters through camera framing and editing. But even when movie audiences might succumb to the power of these images, Blakesley reminds us of the ideologies and desires of those who look, and concludes that “what we see, even at the moment of perception, is a consequence of what we are looking for” (p. 130). The ambiguity of the image, which allows for people to participate in the construction of meaning, is further developed in this article with the discussion of visual arguments. Visual arguments and other forms of visual rhetoric are rarely purely visual. Thus, to understand communicative dimensions of the visual, it is important to examine how images and words interact with each other.

The Tension Between Words and Images

In scholarship of visual rhetoric one recurring theme is the tension between words and images. This tension continues to exist in the discipline of rhetoric even after Kenneth Burke (1966) called for the analysis of human symbolic systems that went beyond the written and spoken word—such as “mathematics, music, sculpture, painting, dance, architectural styles” (p. 28).

In their discussion of the visual public sphere, Hariman and Lucaites (2007) criticize the split of “visual and textual sensibilities . . . into zones of mutual incomprehensibility,” and state that “the challenge is to see how they are already thoroughly enmeshed in one another while also prompting potentially salient differences in response to any particular case” (p. 296). In other words, verbal and visual discourses work together in the construction of meaning, and are used by rhetors to achieve different objectives. For instance, images can be used to illustrate verbal arguments or to make abstract ideas concrete. Other times images and words seem to contradict each other. However, these contradictions are there intentionally to create a new viewpoint, what Kenneth Burke (1959, 1969, 1984) calls a “perspective by incongruity.”

An example where images and words work to reinforce each other can be found in The Miracle of Life, a 1983 documentary known as “the first film ever made of the incredible chain of events” that make up human conception (Miracle of Life, NOVA). The documentary shows magnified versions of the male and female bodies, while a woman’s voice guides us through these images and narrates the process of conception. Arguably, what we see and what we hear are the same. The woman’s voice tells us that what we are looking at is two cells, which later turn into four, etc. Simultaneously, we see these magnified cells dividing on the screen. But as Nathan Stormer (1997) reminds us, words and images are not innocent. To think that the images in the video are mere illustrations of the verbal discourse would be a limited analysis. Stormer argues that the images that make up The Miracle of Life are presented as “real” when they are a simulacrum; that the magnification of the human body and the way the camera moves through space contributes to create an illusion of truth. This illusion created by the production of images is reinforced by the narrator who tells us when we are looking at “the ovary itself,” etc. Furthermore, Stormer points to the gendered stereotypes reproduced by the language in the film, where passive verbs are used to describe the female reproductive system and organs, while active verbs are used to describe the male ones. Thus, the egg “waits” while the sperm heroically overcomes a series of obstacles that include “dangerously inhospitable” environments and “potential enemies.” This example demonstrates the persuasive power of images and words working together. The images in this video would probably make little sense to anyone watching; words are necessary to define what we are looking at. At the same time, images make the words concrete. Together they persuade us into thinking we have a front row seat to the spectacle of conception, or as the video calls it: The Miracle of Life.

Words and images can also point to contradicting ideas to construct new meanings. Kenneth Burke (1959, 1969, 1984) named this method perspective by incongruity. It consists of putting together things that would normally belong in different categories in order to create a new attitude. One example can be found in the work of pop artist Anne Taintor (to see her work, visit). Taintor juxtaposes “good girl” images taken from 1940s and 1950s women’s magazines with “bad girl” captions in order to create “feminist visual humor” (Young, 2010). For example, one of these vignettes depicts a woman in the kitchen. She looks like a stereotypical 1950s American housewife. She is white, has perfectly coiffed reddish hair, blue eyes, a big white smile, bright red lips, and is wearing an apron. She’s looking directly at us while she points to her shiny stove. On the cooktop we see several pots as well as a couple of containers in the oven. The woman holds a large spoon, so we can assume she’s in the middle of cooking. Without the caption, the woman could be seen as a happy housewife who enjoys cooking for her family. Taintor’s feminist commentary disrupts the image with a text that reads: “Why, I’d be delighted to put my needs last again.” In this case, text and image present contradictory ideas, and this juxtaposition creates a surprising new meaning: a sarcastic commentary that questions the idea of the perfect housewife whose happiness is based on serving her family.

The rhetorical analyses of the The Miracle of Life and Anne Taintor’s artwork demonstrate how images and words are entangled in the construction of meaning. This relationship between words and images is not new to rhetoricians. As Bruce Gronbeck notes, “visuality always has been integral to rhetorical consciousness” (2008, p. xxiv). Regardless of this recognition, “logocentric approaches and perspectives” remain the dominant focus of scholarship on communication and the construction of meaning (Goggin, 2004, p. 87). The dominance of words over images has a long history in Western thought, where images are looked at with distrust due to their ambiguity, their perceived ability to manipulate the masses, and their lack of “propositional meaning or syntactical structure” (Hariman & Lucaites, 2007, p. 3). The suspicion of the visual increases in a postmodern world where images themselves are so easily manipulated through the use of technology, such as Photoshop.

Within the discipline of rhetoric, we can also trace a history that privileges the spoken and written word. After all, rhetoric came into being as a tool of persuasion exercised through speech. But rhetoric’s partnership with the written word is, according to Carolyn Handa, “arbitrary, a by-product of print culture rather than the epistemological limits of rhetoric itself” (2004, p. 2). Since the print word is no longer the dominant mass medium, rhetorical scholars urge for the expansion of the field.

To challenge the limiting divide between words and images, as well as the subordination of images to words, scholars point to the fluidity between these two. For instance, Maureen Daly Goggin invites us to visualize the verbal and verbalize the visual (2009). In this sense, she highlights the visuality of words:

In both a literal and figurative way, a rhetoric of the written word is visual, distinguishable from other forms of symbolic representation by the sense of sight. Both images and words on scripts, print or digital pages engage the eyes. When images and words appear together in one discursive space, they operate synergically. In this sense, written verbal rhetoric is visual rhetoric. (p. 88)

Different elements of design, such as typography or the placement of text within a page, are examples of the visualization of the word. Goggin is not alone in the study of the written text as visual. In the edited volume, Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World (2004), scholars discuss the ways they understand visuality in the writing classroom. Craig Stroupe (2004), for instance, calls for teaching “hybrid literacy” in English classrooms, where students learn to integrate words and images on the digital page. Stroupe emphasizes that he is not proposing the use of images to illustrate words, but instead the construction of a dialogue between them. Similarly, Stephen Bernhardt (2004) argues that composition courses should pay attention to the visuality of the text. He posits that to ignore design principles such as the use of headings or the inclusion of “meaningful white space” can only lead to the irrelevance of the writing classroom (p. 103). Finally, Charles Hill (2004a) proposes that composition courses follow a pedagogy that “combines the visual and the verbal without subordinating either mode of rhetoric to the other” (p. 115). Like other scholars discussed in this section, he believes that writing classes will become useless if they continue to ignore visual communication.

The dominant focus on words and language in Western scholarship has been challenged not only in rhetorical studies, but in other areas of the humanities as well. English and art scholar W. J. T. Mitchell (1994) claimed that contemporary culture and theory had taken a “pictorial turn” and argued for the importance of studying visual culture. In What Do Pictures Want?, he stated: “pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language” (2005, p. 47). Following Mitchell, Laurie Gries argues that “visual things” are “complex and full-fledged rhetorical actors” who “deserve to be taken seriously as dynamic actors who transform not only themselves but also those lives whom they encounter” (p. xviii). To construct her argument, Gries explores the rhetorical life of Obama’s Hope image. She follows the trajectory of the image from the moment the original photograph it features was taken in 2006 by Associated Press photographer Mannie Garcia, to the creation of the poster by Shepard Fairy in 2008, to its various reproductions and appropriations through time, space, different media, and objects. Gries analyzes different roles that the image has played in its lifetime, such as a brand for the Obama campaign, and an educator for scholars in design, politics, and visual culture. Obama Hope has also become a commodity and has been used for political satire and activism. The trajectory of Obama Hope illustrates the important roles that images play in the public sphere and points to the significance of their study.

Rationality Versus Emotion

Another discussion that emerges when considering the divide between words and images is the opposition between rationality and emotion. Hariman and Lucaites (2007) argue that contemporary public culture is a visual one, where reason and intuition—respectively associated with words and images—are in constant negotiation. Unlike the traditional notion of the public sphere, where people came together to discuss and influence political action through structured arguments, today’s visual public sphere works “as a web of associations” that benefits from the “emotional salience of images” (p. 301). In the visual public sphere there is space for reason and deliberation, but “emotions represent, activate, and organize much of the content of social and political association” (p. 301). This optimistic view of what Hariman and Lucaites call the “seeing public” (2007) is not shared by everyone. As discussed in the previous section about the Tension Between Words and Images, images are seen with suspicion for their perceived ability to manipulate the masses by appealing to their emotions.

One of the reasons why visual rhetoric has been relegated to a subordinate position with respect to traditional rhetorical studies is that the power of images has been dismissed as purely emotional. This notion is challenged by scholars who argue that emotion can reside in words as much as in images. After all, there are novels and speeches that make their audiences laugh and cry. Much of this emotionally charged language can be found in metaphors, which, like the visual, function “on the non-rational level” (Palczewski, 2002, p. 6). Metaphorical language requires an exercise of our imagination in order to “see something in terms of something else” (Burke, 1945/1969, p. 503). Simultaneously, there are visuals, such as line graphs, that depend on rational appeals (Hill, 2004b).

Charles Hill (2004b) explains that recent research in cognitive and neurological processes further supports the existing knowledge that written texts—such as novels, poems, and even statistical information—can elicit emotions in a comparable way to images. From this research Hill borrows the concept of vividness to explain how people create mental images through the processing of information that “is emotionally interested and concrete” (p. 31). The more vivid the information, the more emotionally intense the response it will elicit (Campos, Marcos, & Gonzalez, 1999). Furthermore, research shows that highly vivid information is more persuasive (Block & Keller, 1997). In a “continuum of vividness” proposed by Hill (2004b), an actual experience would rank as the highest among different types of information, followed by moving images with sound, still photographs, realistic paintings, drawings, narrative accounts, abstract analysis, and finally, statistics as the least vivid (p. 31). This continuum would explain why people are more “moved” by an image than by a statistic. Reading numbers about immigrants drowning at sea is thus less vivid than looking at an image of a little boy’s body washed up on a shore.

While both images and words can be vivid, images provide viewers with a shortcut for processing this type of cognitive information, which is why they can be more persuasive. As Hill points out, “this is what excites professional persuaders and frightens many academic scholars about rhetorical images” (p. 37). He concludes that studying images is important because (1) they are all around us, (2) they can also provoke reflective and analytical thinking and it is important to understand how these processes work, and (3) emotions and aesthetics are valid and valuable objects of study and should be part of rhetoric scholarship.

Visual Arguments

The tensions between images and words, and emotion and reason lead to the question of whether images can argue. Anthony Blair (2004) explains that arguments “supply us with reasons for accepting a point of view” (p. 44). They were traditionally considered exclusive of verbal rhetoric because of their use of propositions, in the form of sentences. However, Blair reminds us that whether they are verbal or visual, arguments constitute a form of communication where “some factor . . . can be considered a reason for accepting or believing some proposition, for taking some other attitude or for performing some action” (p. 49). In other words, an argument “provides a reason for a conclusion” (Birdsell & Groarke, 2004, p. 311). This type of communication can also occur through images.

There are several objections to images functioning as arguments. The first challenge is posed by the distinction of words as discursive and images as presentational. Like scholars who argue for the visuality of words, Catherine Palczweski (2002) finds this distinction indefensible and proposes verbal metaphors as “a fusion” of the discursive and the presentational (p. 6). After all, when we engage metaphorical language, we make a “visual move” to “process the word” (p. 6). Furthermore, Palczweski argues that some images, namely, icons and symbols, have become so prevalent “that they have but one meaning; they become discursive” (p. 6). The International Symbol of Access, which depicts a person in a wheelchair, is an example. This symbol can be found around the world and indicates the presence of accommodations for people with disabilities, whether it is a parking space, a bathroom, or a button for operating automatic doors.

Another objection to visual arguments, which is closely related to the challenge of words as discursive and images as presentational, is made on the basis of the ambiguity and vagueness of visual appeals. In response to this objection, Birdsell and Groarke (2004) argue that images are not intrinsically vague (i.e., people across the world recognize the International Symbol of Access), and that words are also open to interpretation (i.e., there are heated discussions on how to interpret the Constitution). They also raise the importance of context for both visual and verbal arguments. For instance, words in a text are located within a structure in the form of sentences and paragraphs. Reading them in that context, we can understand their meaning. Additionally, we need the context provided by “cultural assumptions, situational cues, time-sensitive information, and/or knowledge of a specific interlocutor” (p. 314). Something similar can be said for images.

Birdsell and Groarke (2004) argue that to understand visual arguments we require three types of context: immediate visual context, immediate verbal context, and visual culture (pp. 314–315). Immediate visual context resembles the word–sentence–paragraph structure just discussed. For example, let us consider a movie scene that starts with a close-up shot of an eye wide open. We do not know if we are about to see a person spying on someone else, if we are looking at the icy stare of a corpse, or something else. In this case, one still image does not provide audiences with enough information to understand the argument; the sequence is needed for context.

Immediate verbal context refers to arguments that have visual and verbal components. Let us go back to the example of the documentary about human conception, The Miracle of Life. Without the verbal narration, it would be hard to know that the abstract pink images on the screen are the interior walls of the fallopian tubes. The third and final type of context identified by Birdsell and Gorarke is visual culture. This concept refers to our culturally specific practices of looking and interpreting, which also change throughout time. For example, contemporary print advertising is very different from that of the early 1900s, and not necessarily because of technological differences, but because of cultural ones. At the turn of the 20th century, advertisements heavily relied on words to provide detailed explanations of images. This is because audiences were being educated on how to read images. One example can be found in Coca-Cola’s 1909 slogan: “Whenever you see an arrow, think of Coca-Cola.” This slogan appeared in all printed publicity along with a big arrow that usually circled the image of a person drinking Coke. One of the initial advertisements explained the slogan:

Whenever, wherever, however you see an arrow, let it point the way to a soda fountain, and a glass of the beverage that is so delicious and so popular that it and even its advertising are constant inspiration for imitators. (New York Times, May 23, 1909)

It’s hard to think that an advertisement today would verbally instruct us to connect a product to a symbol—an image. As an audience, we have had years of visual education to make those connections without the verbal explanations. This example shows how visual culture has changed.

Furthermore, Blair reminds us that ambiguity and vagueness are not always seen as flaws in verbal arguments, where context helps in the construction of meaning. One example provided by Blair is diplomatic language, which necessitates ambiguity and vagueness to be effective. He also posits that most visual arguments are made up of a combination of images and words, a combination which helps fix meaning.

A third objection to visual arguments is that “visual communication does not have truth values, and so cannot convey propositions” (p. 47). Blair argues that not all arguments are propositional, and as long as rhetors “offer reasons to people to change their attitudes, intentions and behavior, it is clear that there can be (even) verbal arguments in which not all the components are propositions” (pp. 48–49). Blair highlights the rhetorical aspect of visual arguments, for their effectiveness relies in their ability to “resonate with the audience on the occasion and in the circumstances” (p. 52). Furthermore, he poses that visual arguments are more forceful than verbal ones because they face less obstacles. Verbal arguments require a rhetor that can invoke powerful mental images, but can face an uncooperative audience who refuses to engage their imagination. In the case of visual arguments, the rhetor does not depend on audience cooperation as long as she can successfully transmit “appropriate feelings/attitudes” (p. 53). Additionally, images can appeal to ethos and pathos and work as enthymemes, where the viewer completes the argument (p. 59).

Visual arguments can be found in texts such as political cartoons and political advertising. Catherine Palczewski’s (2005) research on early 1900s postcards opposing women’s right to vote is a prime example of how visual arguments work. Palczewski shows how postcards resonated with already existing antisuffrage verbal arguments by displaying images of women engaging in masculine behavior: ignoring their children, smoking, wearing masculine clothes, and, of course, voting. At the same time, postcards portraying men created a visual argument that was absent from verbal discussions. In a world where women could vote and participate in public life, men were depicted as feminized and emasculated. As Palczewski states, postcards, which were a form of political propaganda, “encapsulated the complex arguments concerning gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, and citizenship that circulated throughout the suffrage controversy” (p. 374) (to see images of postcards, go to). Through the use of images of masculine women, feminized men, and suffering children, these postcards gave people reasons to conclude that women having the right to vote would upset domestic and public life. In other words, these images made an argument.


It is inconceivable to understand contemporary culture without examining the communicative dimensions and the persuasive power of the visual. Visual rhetoric is a growing field of study that critically engages visual artifacts and practices. This article focuses on some definitions of visual rhetoric and explores some of the recurring themes in its scholarship. The discussions in this article provide just a taste of a vast body of work that continues to flourish.

Discussion of the Literature

This article discusses the term visual rhetoric as a subdiscipline of American rhetorical studies. Visual rhetoric, which focuses on the analysis of the communicative aspects of the visual, finds its origins in Kenneth Burke’s (1966) definition of rhetoric as symbolic action. Burke promoted the analysis of human symbols outside of words, such as within dance, architecture, mathematics, and sculpture, among other areas. In 1970, these ideas were embraced by a group of scholars at the National Conference on Rhetoric (Foss, 2005). The following year, these scholars published a report urging the extension of rhetorical criticism to include a “full range of rhetorical transactions,” such as media messages, marching, and singing (Sloan et al., 1971, p. 225). Lester Olson (2007) signals to Burke and the 1971 report as the “intellectual roots” of the scholarship on visual rhetoric and argues that the political, social, and economic environment of the era—marked by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, among other things—contributed to the realization of the problematic limits of rhetorical criticism. Scholarship on visual rhetoric was also advanced by the proliferation of visual mass media. Scholars not only recognized the need to understand contemporary visual messages, but also benefited from technological developments that facilitated archival research on both contemporary and historic visual materials (Olson, 2007).

Although the history of visual rhetoric as a subdiscipline can be traced back to the 1970s, the term itself did not become popular until the 1990s. Lester Olson (2007) maps the different terminology that has been used by communication and speech scholars to name the study of the visual since the 1970s. These terms refer to the type of medium analyzed or borrow concepts from other fields such as art history. The long list includes “nonverbal rhetoric,” “rhetoric of film,” “rhetorical dimensions of the media,” “rhetorical iconography,” and “rhetorics of display,” among others (pp. 5–6). Even today, the use of the term visual rhetoric remains contested. Olson identifies this issue as an obstacle to creating a comprehensive map of the field and admits that “visual rhetoric” might not be “the best name” (p. 3). At the same time, he recognizes the usefulness of the term because of its inclusiveness and “increasing regularity . . . across a range of disciplines” (p. 3).

In 2006, Olson (2007) conducted a search of scholarship on visual rhetoric in Communication and Mass Media databases. He located 150 journal articles and reviews dating back to 1964. Not all of them featured the term visual rhetoric, but they engaged with the rhetoric of the visual (p. 3). A similar search for the following decade, from 2006 to 2016, produced 46 journal articles and reviews that contained the term visual rhetoric on the title, demonstrating that the concept is relevant and productive.

In an attempt to organize the “undiscipline” of visual rhetoric, Sonja Foss (2005) classifies the existing scholarship into three broad categories: (1) nature of the image, (2) function of the image, and (3) evaluation of the image. The first perspective includes scholarship that examines how visual artifacts create meaning. One example is Parry-Giles’ (2000) article on the making of Hillary Clinton’s image in television. The analysis focuses on different elements of news coverage of Clinton’s senatorial campaign, such as camera distancing and repetition of stereotypes. The presented and suggested elements identified by Parry-Giles enable a better understanding on how female candidates’ images are constructed by the media, particularly in television. Like this article that analyzes television, there is scholarship about every medium and artifact we can think of: photography, political cartoons, film, bodies, places, etc.

The second category, the function of the image, can also be explained as “the action the image communicates” (Foss, 2005, p. 147). This same classification is featured in Visual Rhetoric: A Reader in Communication and American Culture (2004), which organizes its chapters according to rhetorical action. Some of the actions and functions highlighted in the book are performing and seeing, remembering and memorializing, confronting and resisting, and commodifying and consuming. Furthermore, this edited volume compiles important scholarship on visual rhetoric from the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, and thus provides a good panorama of the field during those years.

The third category identified by Foss is the evaluation of the image. It consists of scholarship that assesses whether images are performing their intended function (e.g., memorializing) or whether they uphold certain ethical considerations. Diane Hope’s (2004) analysis of the use of gender and environmental rhetoric in advertisement is an example of this category. Hope criticizes the use of gendered images of the natural world to sell products that feed a consumer culture which destroys the very same natural world featured in these advertisements.

Another way to classify scholarship of visual rhetoric is its timeliness. While much research is done on the latest technology, or the latest political campaign, there is also a continued interest in looking at historical artifacts to try to understand visual culture at different points in time. The environment and the body are two issues that have become relevant in recent years.

An important area of research focuses on groups that have historically been excluded from the normative public sphere because of their race, gender, sexuality, or disabilities. One example is bel hooks’ essay, Black Vernacular: Architecture as Cultural Practice (1995), which reflects on “poor and working class black folks’ relationship to space” and invites the reader to “transform ways of looking and being” (p. 150).

Finally, it is important to mention theoretical approaches to visual rhetoric. A unified theory of visual rhetoric does not exist. Many scholars work with already existing theories from rhetorical studies and extend them to analyze the visual. Fewer work inductively and attempt to theorize from an examination of how the visual works to communicate (Foss, 2005).

This article shows the breath of topics and approaches in visual rhetoric. Its boundaries continue to be pushed by scholars who wish to understand how visual artifacts and practices shape people and culture.

Primary Sources

In visual rhetoric, as in other disciplines, each research project defines its own primary sources. If, for example, one is working on the representations of women during the early 1900s when the suffragist movement was very active, one would perhaps resort to the political cartoon. After some research, one would discover that postcards carried political cartoons and were important visual objects at the time. Therefore, these two visual objects would be primary sources for such a project.

It is difficult to name collections of primary sources without knowing the specific interests driving the research project. From the discussions in this article and the review of the literature, it is clear that the universe of primary sources for a project on visual rhetoric is immeasurable. All images, current and historical, could become artifacts for study.

For those wanting to explore scholarship outside of what is listed here, some visual journals could be a good place to start:

Visual Communication. Available at

Visual Studies. Available at

Jounal of Visual Culture. Available at

For informal reading, the blog No Caption Needed provides interesting material for reflection and conversation. Available at

Further Reading

Brummett, B. (1991). Rhetorical dimensions of popular culture. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.Find this resource:

    DeLuca, K. M. (2005). Image politics: The new rhetoric of environmental activism. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

      Foss, S. (2005). Theory of visual rhetoric. In K. Smith, S. Moriarty, J. Barbatsis, & K. Kennedy (Eds.), Handbook of visual communication: Theory, methods, and media (pp. 141–152). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

        Foss, S. K. (1994). A rhetorical schema for the evaluation of visual imagery. Communication Studies, 34, 213–224.Find this resource:

          Gries, L. (2015). Still life with rhetoric. A new materialist approach for visual rhetorics. Logan: Utah State University Press.Find this resource:

            Handa, C. (2004). Visual rhetoric in a digital world: A critical sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.Find this resource:

              Hariman, R., & Lucaites, J. L. (2007). No caption needed. Iconic photographs, public culture, and liberal democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                Hill, C. A., & Helmers, M. (Eds.). (2004). Defining visual rhetorics. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

                  Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). Picture theory: Essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                    Olson, L. C. (2007). Intellectual and conceptual resources for visual rhetoric: A re-examination of scholarship since 1950. Review of Communication, 7(1), 1–20.Find this resource:

                      Olson, L. C., Finnegan, C. A., & Hope, D. S. (Eds.). (2004). Visual rhetoric. A reader in communication and American culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                        Palczewski, C. H. (2002). Argument in an off key: Playing with the productive limits of argument. In G. T. Goodnight (Ed.), Arguing communication and culture: Proceedings of the Twelfth NCA/AFA Conference on Argumentation, Alta, UT, August 2001 (pp. 1–23). Washington, DC: National Communication Association.Find this resource:

                          Palczewski, C. H. (2005). The male Madonna and the feminine Uncle Sam: Visual argument, icons, and ideographs in 1909 anti-woman suffrage postcards. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 91(4), 365–394.Find this resource:

                            Peterson, V. (2001). The rhetorical criticism of visual elements: An alternative to Foss’s schema. Southern Communication Journal, 67(1), 19–32.Find this resource:

                              Prelli, L. J. (Ed.). (2006). Rhetorics of display. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.Find this resource:

                                Rice, J. (2004). A critical review of visual rhetoric in a postmodern age: Complementing, extending, and presenting new ideas. Review of Communication, 4(1/2), 63–74.Find this resource:

                                  Vats, A., & Nishime, L. (2013). Containment as neocolonial visual rhetoric: Fashion, Yellowface, and Karl Lagerfeld’s “Idea of China.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 99(4), 423–447.Find this resource:

                                    Young, S. L. (2015). Running like man, sitting like a girl: Visual enthymeme and the case of Caster Semenya. Women’s Studies in Communication, 38(3), 331–350.Find this resource:


                                      Bernhardt, S. (2004). Seeing the text. In C. Handa (Ed.), Visual rhetoric in a digital world: A critical sourcebook (pp. 94–106) Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.Find this resource:

                                        Birdsell, D. S., & Groarke, L. (2004). Toward a theory of visual argument. In C. Handa (Ed.), Visual rhetoric in a digital world: A critical sourcebook (pp. 309–320). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s (original work published in 1996).Find this resource:

                                          Blair, A. J. (2004). The rhetoric of visual arguments. In C. A. Hill & M. Helmers (Eds.), Defining visual rhetorics (pp. 41–61). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

                                            Blakesley, D. (2004). Defining film rhetoric: The case of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In C. A. Hill & M. Helmers (Eds.), Defining visual rhetorics (pp. 111–133). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

                                              Block, L. G., & Keller, P. A. (1997). Effects of self-efficacy and vividness on the persuasiveness of health communications. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 6, 31–54.Find this resource:

                                                Burke, K. (1959). Attitudes toward history. Los Altos, CA: Hermes.Find this resource:

                                                  Burke, K. (1966). Language as symbolic action: Essays on life, literature, and method. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                                                    Burke, K. (1969). A grammar of motives. Berkeley: University of California (original work published in 1945).Find this resource:

                                                      Burke, K. (1984). Permanence and change. An anatomy of purpose. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                                                        Campos, A., Marcos, J. L., & Gonzalez, M. A. (1999). Emotionality of words as related to vividness of imagery and concreteness. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 88, 1135–1140.Find this resource:

                                                          Cloud, D. L. (2004). “To Veil the Threat of Terror”: Afghan women and the ‘clash of civilizations’ in the imagery of the U.S. war on terrorism. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 90(3), 285–306.Find this resource:

                                                            Foss, S. (2005). Theory of visual rhetoric. In K. Smith, S. Moriarty, J. Barbatsis, & K. Kennedy (Eds.), Handbook of visual communication theory, methods, and media (pp. 141–152). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

                                                              Goggin, M. D. (2004). Visual rhetoric in pens of steel and inks of silk: Challenging the great visual/verbal divide. In C. A. Hill & M. Helmers (Eds.), Defining visual rhetorics (pp. 87–110). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Find this resource:

                                                                Gries, L. (2015). Still life with rhetoric. A new materialist approach for visual rhetorics. Logan: Utah State University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                  Gronbeck, B. (2008). Visual rhetorical studies: Traces through time and space. In L. C. Olson, C. A. Finnegan, & D. S. Hope (Eds.), Visual rhetoric: A reader in communication and American culture (pp. xxi–xxiv). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                                    Handa, C. (2004). Introduction: Placing the visual in the writing classroom. In C. Handa (Ed.), Visual rhetoric in a digital world: A critical sourcebook (pp. 1–5) Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.Find this resource:

                                                                      Hariman, R., & Lucaites, J. L. (2007). No caption needed. Iconic photographs, public culture, and liberal democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                                                                        Helmers, M. (2004). Framing the fine arts through rhetoric. In C. A. Hill & M. Helmers (Eds.), Defining visual rhetorics (pp. 63–86). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

                                                                          Hill, C. (2004a). Reading the visual in college writing classes. In C. Handa (Ed.), Visual rhetoric in a digital world: A critical sourcebook (pp. 107–130). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.Find this resource:

                                                                            Hill, C. (2004b). The psychology of rhetorical images. In C. A. Hill & M. Helmers (Eds.), Defining visual rhetorics (pp. 25–40). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

                                                                              Hope, D. (2004). Gendered environments: Gender and the natural world in the rhetoric of advertising. In C. A. Hill & M. Helmers (Eds.), Defining visual rhetorics (pp. 155–177). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

                                                                                Lucaites, J. L., & Hariman, R. (2001). Visual rhetoric, photojournalism, and democratic public culture. Rhetoric Review, 20(1/2), 37–42.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Morris, C. E., III, & Sloop, J. M. (2006). “What lips these lips have kissed”: Refiguring the politics of queer public kissing. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 3(1), 1–26.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). Picture theory: Essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Mitchell, W. J. T. (2005). What do pictures want. The lives and loves of images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Miracle of Life. NOVA. Retrieved from

                                                                                        Olson, L. C. (2007). Intellectual and conceptual resources for visual rhetoric: A re-examination of scholarship since 1950. Review of Communication, 7(1), 1–20.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Olson, L. C., Finnegan, C., & Hope, D. S. (2008). Visual rhetoric in communication. In L. C. Olson, C. A. Finnegan, & D. S. Hope (Eds.), Visual rhetoric. A reader in communication and American culture (pp. 1–14). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Palczewski, C. H. (2002). Argument in an off key: Playing with the productive limits of argument. In G. T. Goodnight (Ed.), Arguing communication and culture: Proceedings of the Twelfth NCA/AFA Conference on Argumentation, Alta, UT, August 2001 (pp. 1–23). Washington, DC: National Communication Association.Find this resource:

                                                                                              Palczewski, C. H. (2005). The male Madonna and the feminine Uncle Sam: Visual argument, icons, and ideographs in 1909 anti-woman suffrage postcards. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 91(4), 365–394.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Parry-Giles, S. J. (2000). Mediating Hillary Rodham Clinton: Television news practices and image-making in the postmodern age. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 17(2), 205–226.Find this resource:

                                                                                                  Peterson, V. (2001). The rhetorical criticism of visual elements: An alternative to Foss’s schema. Southern Communication Journal, 67(1), 19–32.Find this resource:

                                                                                                    Rice, J. (2004). A critical review of visual rhetoric in a postmodern age: Complementing, extending, and presenting new ideas. Review of Communication, 4(1/2), 63–74.Find this resource:

                                                                                                      Sloan, T. O., Gregg, R. B., Nilsen, T. R., Rein, I. J., Simons, H. W., Stelzner, H. G., & Zacharias, D. W. (1971). Report of the Committee of the Advancement and Refinement of Rhetorical Criticism. In L. F. Blitzer & E. Black (Eds.), The prospect of rhetoric: Report of the National Developmental Project (pp. 220–227). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Find this resource:

                                                                                                        Stormer, N. (1997). Embodying normal miracles. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 83(2), 172–191.Find this resource:

                                                                                                          Stroupe, C. (2004). Visualizing English: Recognizing the hybrid literacy of the visual and verbal authorship on the web. In C. Handa (Ed.), Visual rhetoric in a digital world: A critical sourcebook (pp. 13–37). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.Find this resource:

                                                                                                            Young, S. L. (2010). Representing gender: Exploring text-image incongruities in Anne Taintor’s artwork. Women & Language, 33, 73–93.Find this resource: