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Posts tagged ‘literature’

Visual literacy as applied skepticism

For better or worse, we live in a visual era, one in which images are ubiquitous. These images, and their messages and/or arguments, compete for our time and attention. I think of it like this: just as Penelope endeavors to remain faithful to Odysseus and to keep her 108 suitors at bay in the Odyssey, we must fight off the inescapable images that endeavor to distract us.

That’s not to say that all or even most images are worthless, of course. Far from it. We’re surrounded by and bombarded with images, in both the physical and the virtual world. That’s just a fact, not a value judgment. And many of these images make claims of one sort or another. We can “read” them as texts, so to speak. Sometimes these arguments are subtle and nuanced, intended to unconsciously nudge us towards a certain perspective or stance on the issue at hand, while some are heavy-handed in their rhetoric, unmistakeable in their intention to persuade. Arguments made by images appeal not to our reasoning skills or to our intellect, but to our emotions.

The study of the arguments and messages conveyed by images is referred to as visual rhetoric. Each semester, I discuss visual rhetoric in my rhetoric/composition courses and encourage students to “read” images, analyze them, practice skepticism towards them, and to determine their message and/or argument. Whether you greet the visual era with optimism, see it as the downfall of western civilization, or something in-between, it’s difficult to deny the importance and necessity of visual literacy.

Upon first encountering the concept of an image as a text and of  “reading” and/or “uncovering” an image’s implicit meaning and/or argument, I imagine that most of us think of visual advertisements. And while it certainly is important to analyze and practice skepticism towards the claims of advertisements, I think that most people are aware of that and already do so, at least to some extent.

As such, I believe that it’s more important to focus on images that are not advertisements, and to analyze how and why these images attempt to persuade us to feel, think, and/or act in a certain way. Images are symbols to which we ascribe meaning and value (this concept is referred to as “the symbolic perspective” or “the symbolist perspective”). In visual rhetoric, audience is key. The way that we react to images determines both their meaning/argument and the effectiveness of that argument. As Keith Kenney explains in “Building Visual Communication Theory by Borrowing from Rhetoric” (PDF), because of the symbolic nature of visual rhetoric, “understanding the intentions of the communicator is less important because meaning is now the result of an audience’s efforts as much as, if not more than, whoever created the message” (66).

Extending our visual literacy beyond advertisements equips us with the necessary tools to analyze, think critically about, and be skeptical of the claims presented by all sorts of images. In the Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, William Nothstine and Martha Cooper explain that “the symbolist perspective centers on the notion that all persuasion is really to a significant extent self-persuasion, involving the active participation of an audience” (509). Visual literacy empowers us to decide whether or not we will “buy into” the message or argument presented by an image. When we analyze images and their arguments, we question, we think, we reflect, and we become an “active participant” in our decision making. In other words, we apply skepticism.

Ultimately, viewing images as persuasive “texts” can help us to apply to images the same skepticism that we already apply to written rhetoric and to oratory. Visual literacy is an empowering tool because it is a practical tool. It doesn’t matter whether or not you welcome the increasingly visual nature of our culture, as we must apply skepticism towards the world we have, not the world we wish we had, and visual literacy is one of the easiest and most useful ways to apply that skepticism.


Works Cited

Cooper, Martha, and William Nothstine. “Persuasion.” Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from  Ancient Times to the Information Age. Ed. Theresa Enos. New York: Garland Pub., 1996. 509. Print.

Kenney, Keith. “Building Visual Communication Theory by Borrowing From Rhetoric.” Journal of Visual Literacy 22.1 (2002): 53–80. Print.


Reading W.B. Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse”

Reading W.B. Yeats‘s “Adam’s Curse“. I can never get enough Yeats :)

Reading two of Anne Sexton’s poems: “With Mercy for the Greedy” and “The Black Art”

“Need is not quite belief…”

Reading two of my favorite poems: Anne Sexton‘s “With Mercy for the Greedy” and “The Black Art

My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it.

Today it is okay to drown, at least for a little while

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

From W.H. Auden’sIn Memory of W. B. Yeats


Harold Bloom, in The Anxiety of Influence, writes:

The precursors flood us, and our imaginations can die by drowning in them, but no imaginative life is possible if such inundation is wholly evaded.

All writers know this flood, this beautiful terrifying flood, whether we realize it or not. It is a flood of words so gloriously brilliant and so achingly gorgeous that they make us both shudder with pleasure and wince with pain. It is a double-edged sword, like that dreadfully thrilling moment when we first realize that lust and anxiety are almost indistinguishable from one another. It is like looking into the face of one whose beauty renders us speechless with both desire and fear. It is a flood of pleasure, of admiration, of love, of pain. After the flood, we are exhausted, inspired, and hurt, in love with a beauty that, try as we might, we can neither possess nor emulate.

And Bloom is right: if, reeling with desperation, confusion, awe, or pleasure, we refuse to fight against this chaotic intoxicating maelstrom, if we chose to drown, we surrender. We render ourselves incapable of engaging in the joy and the toil and the torturous thrill of writing, depriving ourselves and others, leaving too many words unsaid.

Yet, as with all maxims, there are exceptions and caveats to Bloom’s claim. There are those few writers, those glorious few, whose flood of words we cannot help but surrender to. We must let the dizzying awe and the terrifyingly ecstatic thrill that we feel in the presence of their words render us silent with admiration, with love.

In the words of Eliot, their “human voices wake us, and we drown”.

This is especially true when one such voice is extinguished too soon, a voice that refused to “go gentle into that good night“, a voice that, like a benevolent Ozymandias, towers over us, leaving us to ask ourselves what we could we possibly say that would do them justice.

A voice like Christopher Hitchens’s. A voice like no other. A voice that has been silenced all too soon. A voice of staggering brilliance that has now left us with the haunting and heartbreaking question of what might have been.

Many will try, but few possess the words, the knowledge, the personal insight, or the rhetorical talent to give him the remembrances he deserves. For those of us who do not, this is a day to surrender to our awe, our admiration, and our sadness. It is a day to listen to others. It is a day to surrender to our memories of the voice of Christopher Hitchens, a human voice that woke us if ever there was one.

Today it is okay to drown, at least for a little while.

Reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Reading Eliot‘s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Reading two of W.B. Yeats’s poems

Reading Yeats‘s “The White Birds” and “He gives His Beloved certain Rhymes

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